History is bunk. Anyway, that’s what the old fascist Henry Ford said. Ford was the guy who ruthlessly opposed union efforts by his employees, published and distributed the dangerous anti-Semitic fantasy Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and received the Grand Cross medal from Adolf Hitler for helping to build the Nazi war machine. You can look it up. Maybe that’s why Henry didn’t like history. His Nazi medal is still in his archives, hidden away.
Actually, history is cool. There are three basic reasons I think history is so important– critical, really– to all of us who believe that 0ur society needs fundamental, transformative social change:
Practical knowledge– In 2011, outraged citizens sat-in at the Wisconsin State Capitol in response to the governor’s attack on workers. They were following in the footsteps of students who in 1960 occupied the lunch counters at Woolworth’s in a successful challenge to Jim Crow. These young civil rights activists found inspiration in the 1936-37 sit-in by auto workers at the Flint factory. Their actions echoed the Wobblies of 1906, who occupied the General Electric plant in New York instead of walking out on strike. And those Wobs learned from Lucy Parsons, who inspired them with a vision of “strikes of the future” from the 1905 IWW convention stage.
Inspiration– Every generation believes that they live in “the worst of times,” which then gives rise to impatience, cynicism, and discouragement. But if history teaches anything, it is that there are victories but no permanent defeats. We are in it for the long haul. As Rabbi Tarfon said, “It is not granted you to complete the task, and yet you may not give it up.”
A Continuum– The people’s history we honor is not some ancient, static text. It’s a river in which we all swim. Each one of us has a place in the ongoing struggle for social and economic justice. “Never doubt that you can change history,” Marge Piercy reminds us. “You already have.”
“We need to recover the disappeared story of the struggle of common people to create a democratic culture. We need to inject into the current debate a vision of a just society where competition is replaced with cooperation, where greed is replaced with love allowing power to be shared by all.”
To my old comrade Terry McDonough (now Terrence McDonough, professor of Economics, National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway). In the 1970s we researched and wrote some local Hartford history, and Terry came up with the name “Shoeleather History.”
Some of the projects we’ve organized or cosponsored: