National Archives hosts Atlanta conversation about individual rights and our constitution
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.
This week, guest columnist JIM GARDNER, executive for Legislative Archives, Presidential Libraries, and Museum Services at the National Archives, discusses an upcoming program at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum.
By Jim Gardner
In commemoration of the 225th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the National Archives is launching its “National Conversation on Rights and Justice” with a two-day program in Atlanta at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum May 20-21. While the National Archives is well known in Washington for its programming for adults on serious policy issues and controversial ideas, most people outside of the District of Columbia think of us as the place that stores the nation’s records. We are that, but we’re also much more — and we want to change what people think about archives and more specifically about the National Archives. We believe that the Archives has an obligation not just to care for and provide access to the nation’s records but also to engage the public in conversation about the meaning of those documents and the critical context they play in addressing the questions that we confront in our civic life today.
While much of what we do is historical in focus — looking back to make meaning of the past — we are also interested in looking forward, in using the past the as the context for addressing the challenges of the future. We opened in March a history exhibition, Amending America, in our museum in Washington. The focus is simple: Over the past 225 years, our constitution has been amended 27 times, but more than 11,000 amendments have been proposed in Congress. What is it about those 27, and especially the first 10, our Bill of Rights, that elevated those issues to such a level?
We will soon have traveling versions of the exhibition on the road; we’ve developed a variety of related education and public programs not only for our presidential libraries and field offices but also for other partnering museums and historical organizations; and we’re employing new ways of engaging the public, including Wikipedia edit-a-thons and transcription projects.
But we want to do more than explore the history of amending the constitution — we also want to consider how we will ensure rights and justice in the 21st century. When we address essential concerns that affect us all, when we strive to create a more perfect Union, we are “amending America,” just in a different way. With support from the National Archives Foundation, AT&T, the Ford Foundation, and the Seedlings Foundation, we’re convening programs across the country looking at rights and justice today.
The focus of our National Conversation at the Carter Library will be on “Civil Rights and Individual Freedom,” fittingly led by former President Jimmy Carter. He’ll speak and then have a conversation with Derreck Kayongo, CEO of the Center for Civil and Human Rights. The session that follows, led by Jelani Cobb, writer, author, and director of the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Connecticut, will explore “The Future of Civil and Political Rights in America.” On Saturday, we’ll have a discussion on “Taking a Stand: Activism Today,” led by Maurice Hobson from Georgia State University, and conclude with a spoken word performance by Peabody Award-winning poet Abyss.
We know that not everyone can join us at the Carter Library, but we hope you’ll join us via simulcast and engage in the conversation via social media at #RightsandJustice. Or you can watch later on our YouTube channel. And please make plans to join us live or online on July 15-16 for our National Conversation at the Chicago History Museum on “LGBTQ Human and Civil Rights.” Subsequent programs will address gender equity (New York), immigration rights (Los Angeles), and education access and equity (Dallas) — and all will culminate in a conversation in Washington, D.C., next spring. So, there are many ways you can join in our National Conversation, and we look forward to your helping us continue the discussions locally, regionally, and nationally through new communities of conversation.
Jim Gardner is executive for Legislative Archives, Presidential Libraries, and Museum Services at the National Archives. He is co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Public History.
Kelly Caudle and Allison Hutton of Georgia Humanities provide editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.