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American History Gives Insight on Governance in the Middle East

2012 June 15

African American History Museum

Tour poses before the African American Civil War Memorial. Pictured: Jeanne Isler, Program Director for SFCG on Race (far right); Dala Ghandour, Leaders for Democracy Fellow and Intern for SFCG on Race (second from right); Dr. Frank Smith, Director of the Museum; Emna Ben-Yedder, Leaders for Democracy Fellow and Intern for Partners in Humanity (far left) with other Fellows.

By: Christopher White

Race and International Relations

Recently I had the opportunity to join what wound up being a very productive cross-cultural meeting. Dala Ghandour, one of our visiting Leaders for Democracy Fellows (LDF), organized a trip to the African American Civil War Memorial & Museum for her LDF colleagues (for more information, you can read a recent SFCG blog post about Dala and the State Department’s LDF program and an article by The Examiner on the museum visit). Jeanné Isler, Project Director for SFCG on Race, was able to get Dr. Frank Smith, Director of the Museum and former City Councilman, to lead the visiting Fellows on a comprehensive tour chronicling the African American experience. This facet of American history opened up an opportunity for Middle Eastern political entrepreneurs to draw lessons on community development from the experiences of an American civil rights activist.

African American History Museum

Dr. Smith speaks with Emna (second from left) about Tunisian politics at the Museum’s iconic gate.

With emerging leaders from the Middle East and North Africa learning about the politics of race in America, this event showcased how our SFCG on Race and Partners in Humanity programs can dovetail. SFCG’s Partners in Humanity program centers around efforts to promote cross-cultural dialogue between the Muslim and Western worlds while SFCG on Race seeks to foster dialogue that will heal the wounds of racism in America. Reflecting on her work on the Congressional Conversations on Race, Jeanné noted that “part of the reason why the discourse on race and conflict around race is [so] entrenched is because we are not in the habit of sharing and listening to a range of stories about people’s American experiences.” Bringing this narrative approach to Muslim-Western relations was one of the motivations for this event.

The Importance of Inclusive Development

When Dr. Smith opened his tour, he presented us with a stark reminder that civil rights and racial equality are not simply museum pieces. During a recent conference on racial reconciliation in Georgia, Dr. Smith told us about a KKK demonstration that was occurring at the same time. It was something that many wouldn’t expect in 2012 but, he pointed out, it served to demonstrate that America is still wrestling with this issue.

African American History Museum

Dr. Smith talks about the aftermath of the American Civil War with Dala and Emna.

Taking us through displays of shackles, uniforms, and bills of sale for human beings, Dr. Smith detailed how the Emancipation Proclamation came about and how African Americans helped bolster the forces of the Union during the American Civil War. Dr. Smith explained how the antagonisms over the political economy of slavery had led to a deep and far-reaching debate over what kind of country America would be.  Would sentiments of national unity win out over the desire for two Americas? What would be the fate of freed slaves? Would they be regarded as second-class or full citizens? This kind of debate over competing visions of the future, he suggested, may be similar to what is going on in the Fellows’ home countries right now.

African Americans were granted legal rights in the aftermath of the war, but, as the armed regiments pulled out of Southern territory, old prejudices re-emerged as laws were made to systematically exclude them. Requirements for voter registration such as poll taxes and exams were used to prevent the full enfranchisement of African Americans. Thus, the Civil War had led to a merely formal national unity. It took the twentieth century civil rights movement to enable legislation (e.g., the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act) aimed at realizing the country’s ideals of equal protection under the law.

African American History Museum

The Leaders for Democracy Fellows learn about U Street’s unique history.

Dr. Smith related his own efforts to bring the lessons of the movement to the forefront in everyday politics during his tenure with DC’s City Council. He told a story about how developers had bought buildings in the city, and attempted to evict renters so they could sell the property. There was a law that, if housing was to be sold, it had to be offered to the tenants first. Organizing the people from the neighborhood, he was able to orchestrate sit-ins and take over the street, thus leading to support from the city for the tenants to buy back their housing. Grassroots organizing, coupled with efforts to enact good rent control laws that would prevent tenants from being evicted by indirect means enabled the residents to retain influence over how the town was to develop.

Lessons for an International Audience

Dr. Smith told the visiting Fellows this because he said he wanted to “embolden” them. Everyday politics, while perfectly legal, can sometimes lead to socially unjust policy. He told the Fellows that, as they help shape the future of their home countries, it will be important to spread economic development so that it benefits the whole, not just a particular group. Otherwise, Dr. Smith noted, they might wake up one day and realize they had not built what they had originally intended.

African American History Museum

Dr. Smith discusses the complex motivations behind the American Civil War with Emna and Dala.

Crossing the street to show us the Memorial, Dr. Smith told the Fellows that if they want to have a just society, it is important to “keep the people involved in the discussion.” He gestured to the figures in the Memorial he helped establish and said that, to galvanize their people, they should “find something like this that brings everyone together and tells a real story.”

Dala told me that the things Dr. Smith had to say really resonated for her. Indeed, reflecting on sectarian issues in her home country of Lebanon, she told me that, “It’s important for me to heal the wounds of my people…because if you don’t acknowledge  that something’s wrong, then you cannot build something…you cannot bring people to acknowledge that there has been mourning and grief.” This was exactly why Jeanné had been supportive of the trip in the first place. She suggested that perhaps DC’s grassroots history, rather than just its federal agencies, could contribute to the goals of developing knowledge in the field of peacebuilding:

I think that ethnic conflict is a challenge around the world and I definitely consider conflict about race in America to be one facet of ethnic conflict. I think that…we as a country have things to learn but we also have some best practices that we can share.

Christopher White, Communications Consultant at SFCG, is a social media strategist and freelance writer with a focus on international relations and philosophy.

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