“The Value of Records”

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Around the time of this year’s inauguration, the Society of American Archivists (SAA) website published a collection of previous presidential addresses.  On that page, I found one of the addresses I couldn’t find during my original review of these addresses.  This particular address also answers another question I had — he explained that President Connor decided to deliver only one address during his two-year term, a practice which was continued by his successors, with William D. McCain being the last of the two-year presidents.  McCain delivered his address at the 1952 SAA annual meeting held in Lexington, Kentucky, and it was published in the January 1953 issue of the American Archivist.

McCain had a varied professional path, working as a college lecturer in Mississippi before serving as a genealogist and archivist at the Morristown National Historic Park in New Jersey.  He worked briefly as Assistant Archivist at the U.S. National Archives and then directed the Mississippi State Department of Archives and History from 1938 until World War II.  He served in the war first with an Army antiaircraft artillery unit and then was assigned as a military historian recording the progression of U.S. Fifth Army through North Africa, Sicily, and southern Italy.  In 1944, McCain joined the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program (aka “Monuments Men”) as Regional Archivist for the Lombardia region of Italy.  From December 1945 until May 1955, he resumed his work as director of the Mississippi State Department of Archives and History.  He also served in the military during the Korean War and commented in this address that he wrote it “in the rear and forward command posts of a combat unit deployed in the defense of a vital area of the United States” (4).  He then became President of Mississippi Southern College (today, The University of Southern Mississippi), where he served until retirement.

McCain reflected briefly upon the addresses of his predecessors, acknowledging their contributions to the knowledge and morale of the SAA.  He also read all issues of the American Archivist before writing his address — all 5,161 pages! — for inspiration.  In keeping with the post-war concerns of his era, he almost titled his address “Shall Our Records Engulf Us?”  Although he shifted his title, he did spend time explaining the problems caused by keeping too many records — both for repositories and especially for researchers.  On the former issue, he cited a contemporary article from Reader’s Digest that said:

“‘And you and I are not sure why we keep half the stuff we do . . . most of the filing that we human beings do is a manifestation of some of our worst traits — our miserliness or stinginess, our fear of the future, our dependence on material props, our weakness for hugging old experiences to our hearts instead of moving bravely on to new ones'” (5).

He suggested having too many records is overwhelming to researchers and quoted another article in the American Archivist that concluded “‘the impetus to scholarship seems to decrease in inverse ratio to the amount of source material available in these days of mass record-making and reproduction'” (6).

In order to address this problem, McCain encouraged archivists to focus on the value and utility of records.  He posed several questions to consider (6):

  • “Did you ever stop and wonder what useful purpose you were serving in accumulating and preserving records?”
  • “Do you consider that you are making any contribution toward the welfare of mankind with your work?”
  • “Since you believe that records are valuable, do you think that all people have some idea of their importance?”

McCain looked to a comment in the U.S. Senate to define historical value: “‘Public records make up the backbone of history.  All men with a deep sense of the historical know this to be so'” (7).  Yet he acknowledged that not all Americans shared this deep sense of the importance of history and challenged his audience to make history more interesting for all.  In the midst of the Cold War, McCain asserted a major problem of Communism was that it “adopted a philosophy in which untruthfulness has been elevated to the status of a science and has become a prescribed rule of conduct in private and public affairs.  The great power of tradition and precedent is one of the chief stabilizing forces that protect us from these people who would lead us backward into a dark age of indecency and immorality in all planes of our existence” (7-8).  In an analysis that has considerable relevance to archival work even today, McCain concluded:

“If there were no authentic records of our past, the fantastic lying of the Communists would have a far greater effect in their efforts to destroy us” (8).

McCain explained that records have significant business and fiscal value.  To address the value of government records, he quoted from an address of a former president of Panama:

“‘A government without archives would be something like a warrior without weapons, a physician without medicines, a farmer without seed, an artisan without tools.  Public records are the solid ground on which the statesman can tread with security in the incessant toil of conducting the affairs of a nation.  They are the silent, impartial, reliable and eternal witness that bears testimony to the toils, the misfortunes, the growth and the glories of peoples'” (8).

McCain used his military experience to explain that records can be used to develop morale, pride, and honor.  He also suggested local records can build up local pride and acknowledged the obvious value of records to genealogists.  He then turned to Venetian bishop Baldassare Bonifacio to summarize the utility of archives:

“‘If we had been completely deprived of these precious crumbs, we should all be compelled to grope in the dark, to feel our way with our hands not only in history but also in the other disciplines'” (11).

McCain acknowledged records can provide knowledge where human memory fails.  In the end, he asserted archivists must do a better job of explaining the value of records in order to garner more respect for the profession:

“When there is a general appreciation of the usefulness of records and of the work of those who preserve them and make them available for research, then the professional archivist will be raised to the level of respect accorded such professional men as doctors, dentists, bankers, lawyers, educators, and engineers” (11).


LBJ’s “The American Promise”

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In the midst of the traumas in Selma that I described last week, President Lyndon B. Johnson went to Congress on March 15, 1965, to address the nation and to introduce the legislation that would become the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  Johnson and his administration had been working for quite some time to draft this legislation, but as the consummate legislator-become-president, LBJ wanted the timing to be right and the bill to be perfect.  Presidential aide Bill Moyers remembered LBJ’s logic:

“First, it’s got to pass.  We can’t risk defeat or dilution by filibuster on this one.  This bill has to go up there clean, simple and powerful. Second, we don’t want this bill declared unconstitutional.  This can’t be just a two line bill.  The wherefores and the therefores are insurance against that.”

Bloody Sunday in Selma changed everything, so eight days later, Dick Goodwin drafted the address that became known as “The American Promise.”  LBJ began with a straightforward yet astounding first sentence:

“I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.”

He continued by setting this speech in its historical context:

“At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom.  So it was at Lexington and Concord.  So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.”

LBJ acknowledged the unparalleled economic prosperity of the United States and the strides that had been made in the space race but contended the issue of voting rights was of the utmost importance:

“Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved Nation.  The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue.  And should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.”

To emphasize this point, LBJ cited Matthew 16:26:

“For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

Similar to the tone of JFK’s civil rights address several years earlier, LBJ made it clear the problem that faced the nation:

“There is no Negro problem.  There is no Southern problem.  There is no Northern problem.  There is only an American problem.  And we are met here tonight as Americans — not as Democrats or Republicans — we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.”

LBJ quoted the Declaration of Independence and referenced the 15th Amendment.  He then summarized the main provisions of the legislation he was proposing.  He reminded Congress that the legislation sent by JFK and ultimately signed by LBJ as the 1964 Civil Rights Act had originally included a voting rights provision that Congress removed.  Then, reminiscent of an argument made many times by Martin Luther King, Jr., LBJ argued the time for action had come:

“This time, on this issue, there must be no delay, no hesitation and no compromise with our purpose.  We cannot, we must not, refuse to protect the right of every American to vote in every election that he may desire to participate in.  And we ought not and we cannot and we must not wait another 8 months before we get a bill.  We have already waited a hundred years and more, and the time for waiting is gone.”

LBJ several times quoted the anthem of the civil rights movement and positioned this movement as a responsibility for the nation:

“What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America.  It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.  Their cause must be our cause too.  Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.  And we shall overcome.”

He then expressed support for the efforts of civil rights protestors:

“The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro.  His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this Nation.  His demonstrations have been designed to call attention to injustice, designed to provoke change, designed to stir reform.”

LBJ consistently tied the issue of civil rights back into key components of his Great Society program — housing, education, employment, and other anti-poverty measures.  He concluded by referencing the Latin motto above the pyramid on our paper currency:

“God will not favor everything that we do.  It is rather our duty to divine His will.  But I cannot help believing that He truly understands and that He really favors the undertaking that we begin here tonight.”


MLK’s “Our God is Marching On!”

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This weekend seems like an appropriate time to look into the context of one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches.  A few years ago I took a look at several speeches and summarized the saga of his papers.  Today I turn to the speech he delivered in Montgomery on March 25, 1965, at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march.  But before looking at the speech itself, several important points of context:

  • On February 18, 1965, Jimmie Lee Jackson participated in a voting rights march in Marion, Alabama.  When Marion police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and Alabama state troopers began attacking the marchers, Jackson along with his mother and grandfather fled into a nearby cafe.  They were chased by police and beaten there, and when Jackson attempted to protect his mother, he was shot in the abdomen, a wound from which he died eight days later in a hospital in nearby Selma.  His death helped inspire the Selma to Montgomery marches.
  • March 7, 1965, became known as “Bloody Sunday” because as about 600 protesters began their march out of Selma, they were greeted by state and local lawmen at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, attacked with billy clubs and tear gas, and chased back into the black churches of Selma where they had organized the march.  17 marchers, including current U.S. Representative John Lewis, were hospitalized, and another 50 were treated for other injuries.
  • On March 9, 1965, civil rights leaders (including Martin Luther King, Jr.) organized another march from Selma to Montgomery with more than 1,500 participants, but when were once again met by the state police, they returned to Selma.  That night, a white minister named James Reeb was beaten to death by a group of segregationists in Selma.
  • At the conclusion of the final 5-day march, King delivered this speech on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, where a little over two years earlier George Wallace delivered his inaugural address, recognizing Montgomery as the “Cradle of the Confederacy” and uttering his famous promise, “segregation now . . . segregation tomorrow  . . . segregation forever.”  (Wallace’s speech is available in its entirety at the Alabama Department of Archives and History.)
  • Viola Liuzzo watched the television coverage of Bloody Sunday and felt compelled to help the campaign for voting rights, so she traveled from Detroit to Alabama.  She helped drive marchers between Selma and Montgomery, and when she was returning to Selma on March 25, she was shot and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
  • All of these tragedies contributed to the call for passage of what became the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  Come back next week for a look at LBJ’s speech before Congress.

With that context, now a look at the speech itself.  King incorporated a number of references, many of which would have been familiar to his audience and some of which have interesting sources themselves.  (My quotations are generally longer than what King included, to keep with my theme of context.)

  • Despite the complex path of the Selma to Montgomery march, King decided to make reference to the freedom song, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”
  • King pointed to noted historian C. Vann Woodward and his book The Strange Career of Jim Crow, which argued that segregation was a tool designed by the white ruling class to perpetuate low labor costs.  King included this analysis of the campaign against the Populist movement of the late 19th century: “To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society.  I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote.  Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy.  They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement.  They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level.  And that did it.  That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.”
  • King quoted from the 1921 poem of James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as well as the spiritual “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”
  • King acknowledged those who had already died in the nonviolent civil rights struggle: Medgar Evers, three civil rights workers in Mississippi last summer, William Moore, the Reverend James Reeb, Jimmy Lee Jackson, and four little girls in the church of God in Birmingham on Sunday morning.
  • King quoted Amos 5:24: “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
  • King concluded with a series of questions about how long it would take to achieve justice — the well-known “How long? Not long” section.
    • He first cited the 19th century William Cullen Bryant poem “The Battle-Field,” which says, “Truth crushed to earth, shall rise again; / The eternal years of God are hers; / But Error, wounded, writhes in pain, / And dies among his worshippers.”
    • He quoted 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle, who wrote in The French Revolution, “For if there be a Faith, from of old, it is this, as we often repeat, that no Lie can live forever.”
    • He quoted the poem of James Russell Lowell, “The Present Crisis“: “Careless seems the great Avenger; history’s pages but record / One death-grapple in the darkness ‘twixt old systems and the Word; / Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne, — / Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown, / Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own. We see dimly in the Present what is small and what is great, / Slow of faith how weak an arm may turn the iron helm of fate, / But the soul is still oracular; amid the market’s din, / List the ominous stern whisper from the Delphic cave within,— / ‘They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin’.”
    • He paraphrased an 1853 sermon by Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker, who said, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe.  The arc is a long one.  My eye reaches but little ways.  I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight.  I can divine it by conscience.  And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”
    • King concluded by reciting Julia Ward Howe’s 1862 “Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; / He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; / He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword: / His truth is marching on.”

    In looking back at this speech, I gather strength from how often King invoked truth.  Happy 88th birthday, MLK!

FDR’s 1st inaugural address

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“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly.  Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today.  This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.  So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) delivered his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933.  The United States was mired in a years-long economic depression, and the public had overwhelmingly voted in November 1932 to replace Herbert Hoover, but there was a nearly four-month lame duck period before FDR took office.  (The 20th amendment to the Constitution went into effect in October 1933 to change the inauguration date to January 20th.)  The passage I’ve excerpted comes from the second paragraph of FDR’s address.  After focusing on the concept of truth, FDR went on to identify very clearly what he considered to be the causes of the ongoing crisis as well as his plans for rectifying the situation.  Rather than letting the public dwell on the dire circumstances, FDR challenged them to set asides their fears and work towards a better future.

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library has digitized a published version of this address along with the original typescript used by FDR.  The file also includes several drafts.

Archivists in a post-truth world

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In November, the Oxford Dictionaries announced their word of the year for 2016 — post-truth:

“an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’”

They cited the frequency of its usage related to the politics of the EU “Brexit” referendum along with the American presidential election.  They explained the prefix has taken on a connotation not tied to a particular time but instead “belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant.”

Archivists have been attuned to ends of eras and changing applications of the prefix post — consider the postcustodial theory of archives that emerged with the growth of electronic records in the 1990s, wherein “archivists will no longer physically acquire and maintain records, but that they will provide management oversight for records that will remain in the custody of the record creators.”  Although truth is not a term defined in the SAA Glossary, related terms such as trustworthiness and accountability and authenticity do warrant attention.

In my opinion, what archivists can offer to a post-truth world — in hopes this is a passing condition — is context.  I believe much of what has fed the post-truth tidal wave is prooftexting, or plucking quotes out of context to support a presupposed conclusion.  This is certainly not a new phenomenon, for humans seem predisposed to seek out opinions that validate our own.  But I plan to do my part to fight the good fight in 2017 by interspersing my reviews of archival literature with contextual studies of quotations — some of which will be familiar and others of which will come from some of my favorite books.  In all cases, I will try to illuminate the meaning of the quote by identifying the context of its origin.  Join me on my journey!