50 years of the most ambitious piece of cultural legislation in U.S. history

In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.

By Jamil Zainaldin

1965-2015 nehAfter the aborted Bay of Pigs operation. . . . After the nuclear brinkmanship that followed the discovery of nuclear missiles in Cuba. . . . After President John F. Kennedy fell before an assassin’s bullet, rattling the nation to its core. . . .

President Lyndon B. Johnson reminded America of something it had never lost and never would: its imagination, its humanness, and its capacity to aspire to the heights of learning. On September 29, 1965, exactly 50 years ago, Johnson signed the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities Act, the most ambitious piece of cultural legislation in American history, creating the National Endowment for the Humanities as an independent federal agency and consecrating America’s place in the world of learning and the life of the mind.

Screenshot 2015-09-28 ngeThe National Endowment for the Humanities came to life in a day that called on all our collective wisdom for survival — both abroad and at home. In 1964 and 1965 the Civil and Voting Rights legislation corrected the deepest of historical wrongs. Building on this, the NEH and its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Arts, were designed to further strengthen our democracy. Indeed, by creating the NEH, Johnson gave America a gift, declaring, “The humanities belong to all the people of the United States.” This remarkable gift was really just a reminder of our possibilities and our potential.

On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, the NEH offers us a glimpse of all it has accomplished. A special website created by the endowment offers a unique and fascinating window into its 50 years of work. Of the 63,000 grants awarded during that time, NEH has selected 50 “top projects” that show the range, depth, intellectual diversity, and impact of its investment.

Here we learn about the Dead Sea Scrolls, Mark Twain, the Civil War’s “Valley of the Shadow,” a colonial Maine midwife’s remarkable diary (subsequently a Pulitzer Prize winner), ancient Greek and Latin mythology, and a digitally reconstructed image of a 2,000-year-old statue of Buddha destroyed by treasure hunters.

Several of the top 50 projects touch the state of Georgia:

  • We learn the surprising and largely unknown story of cardiac surgery’s modern invention by a white physician (born in Monroe County, Georgia) and a black technician in the era of Jim Crow.
  • The free and online New Georgia Encyclopedia is praised for its innovation and used by educators, the media, and the public. The site is hosted by GALILEO (Georgia’s virtual online library) and is a project of Georgia Humanities, GALILEO/University System of Georgia, the University of Georgia Press, and the Office of the Governor.
  • The Emory-based Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (Voyages) is unique for its comprehensive, online documentation that is an aid to students and scholars worldwide studying the history of slavery.
  • In the post-Civil War era, “Black Codes” — restrictions on loitering, vagrancy, unemployment, and talking loudly in public — became a new form of oppression for African Americans. Douglas Blackmon, a longtime journalist in Atlanta, tells the tragic story in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which became the basis of a documentary of the same title. This work was one of several included in the NEH’s Created Equal initiative.
  • National History Day was founded in the late 1970s at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. Present in 48 states, it is a mainstay of Georgia Humanities. National History Day encourages middle and high school students to use primary sources of research and historical interpretation in statewide competitions. Winners of each state’s contests compete in College Park, Maryland, in the finals. Our Georgia partners include LaGrange College and Mercer University.

These are only a handful of the many thousands of projects the NEH has funded, but one senses here a fulfillment beyond expectations. If democracy truly demands wisdom and vision of its citizens, then the NEH has become our national civic catechism.

Kelly Caudle of Georgia Humanities provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.

Jamil Zainaldin is president of Georgia Humanities, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that humanities and culture remain an integral part of the lives of Georgians. The organization is a cultural leader in the state as well as a pioneer nationally in innovative history and humanities programs. The New Georgia Encyclopedia is a project of Georgia Humanities, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO. The first state encyclopedia to be conceived and designed exclusively for publication on the Internet, the NGE is an important and authoritative digital resource for all Georgians.

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