The official program book for the 1936 US Democratic National Convention featured a circular emblem with the names Roosevelt and Jefferson running around it, as if the then-president and his long-ago predecessor Thomas Jefferson were running mates. In former US President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous speech accepting his party’s nomination, he placed his fight against the “economic royalists” who had “carved new dynasties” and caused the Great Depression as a continuation of America’s historic opposition to tyranny, whether it be a British King or centralized wealth.
“Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power,” Roosevelt said.
Today, the Democratic Party tells a different story of its place in American history. Speaker after speaker at the 2020 Democratic National Convention reached to the more recent, but increasingly distant history of the civil rights movement to explain its purpose in the 21st century. Democratic nominee Joe Biden opened his acceptance speech Thursday night with a quote from civil rights icon Ella Baker, and other leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., C.T. Vivian, Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash and the late Georgia congressman John Lewis were invoked during the week too. Lewis, the last living speaker at the March on Washington, who died on July 17, was repeatedly memorialized, including with a five-minute video eulogy that linked the party to the spirit of the movement through him.
When politicians and political parties reach into the past for historical reference they do so in order to tell a story about the present. But America’s racism, white supremacy and xenophobia pose a complicating problem for politicians looking to explain themselves in American history for nonwhite audiences. That is a task that the Democratic Party, as it has transformed itself since the mid-20th century into the party of minority groups that were left out of the traditional American mythos, must do.
Biden has made civil rights, and the fight against bigotry and racism, his origin story for seeking the presidency.
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When Trump said there were “very fine people” among “those neo-Nazis and Klansmen and white supremacists coming out of the fields with lighted torches,” in Charlottesville, Virginia on Aug. 12, 2017, Biden said Thursday night that “I knew I’d have to run.” Klansmen and white supremacists, “coming out of fields,” as if emerging from America’s history ― the same history the civil rights movement squared up against. He sought to join the battle for “the soul of America,” he said.
“To save the soul of America.” That was the motto adopted by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference when it was formed under the leadership of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1957 as the civil rights movement ramped up in the South.
Vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) traced her political roots to her parents ― a Black Jamaican man and an Indian woman ― who “fell in love … while marching together for justice in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.” Harris, herself, “got a stroller’s-eye view of people getting into what the great John Lewis called ‘good trouble.’”
Harris accepted her party’s vice presidential nomination on behalf of the values her mother taught her. “And to a vision passed on through generations of Americans — one that Joe Biden shares,” she noted.
The vision of America Harris sought to make real is of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Beloved Community,” she said, “where all are welcome, no matter what we look like, where we come from, or who we love.”
“Joe and I believe that we can build that Beloved Community, one that is strong and decent, just and kind,” Harris said. “One in which we all can see ourselves.”
The civil rights movement is the historical point of reference that the party sees as its central animating mythos. It situates the party’s rights-based program within American history and gives meaning to the party among its base of Black Americans and other groups that continue to agitate for the expansion of rights and equal treatment before the law.
It also comes as the party casts President Donald Trump’s open racism, virulent xenophobia, opposition to voting and civil rights and general indecency as in opposition to the United States itself and it looks to embrace the 21st century civil rights movement of Black Lives Matter.
Biden praised the Movement for Black Lives, linked it to the mid-20th century movement and called on this generation of Americans to be the one that “finally wipes the stain of racism from our national character.”
“Maybe George Floyd’s murder was the breaking point,” he said. “Maybe John Lewis’ passing the inspiration. However it has come to be, America is ready to in John’s words, to lay down ‘the heavy burdens of hate at last’ and to do the hard work of rooting out our systemic racism.”
The civil rights movement itself is the most consequential political event in American politics in the past century and is now viewed as akin to a refounding of the nation. President Barack Obama implied as much by bestowing upon Lewis the label of “Founding Father” at his funeral. And the movement provides a link to the nation’s original founding that runs through America’s minority groups as its leaders cast their own arguments for equality, justice and jobs through a story about the Constitution.
The “magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” were “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said at the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. But the nation had “defaulted on this promissory note,” King said, “in so far as her citizens of color are concerned.”
“America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds,’” King said, adding, “we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
This is what can be called the myth of the Constitution. That myth sees the Constitution as a promise of ever-expanding freedom and liberty as expressed in that document’s preamble, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union.” These were the words Abraham Lincoln called upon in his first inaugural address, which inaugurated this myth of the Constitution, and by President Barack Obama in his most famous speech on race and America in 2008. It was this myth that prevailed throughout the convention as speakers wrapped themselves in the legend of the civil rights movement and the words “We the People” featured in every visual presentation for the party’s many policy stances.
The Constitution “wasn’t a perfect document,” Obama said Wednesday night from the Museum of the Constitution in Philadelphia, as it allowed slavery and did not grant the right to vote to women. “But embedded in this document was a North Star that would guide future generations; a system of representative government — a democracy — through which we could better realize our highest ideals,” he said.
This is not new territory for Obama, who praised “the true genius of America: that America can change” in his 2008 victory address. “Our union can be perfected. What we’ve already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow,” he said then.
But Obama’s references to the Constitution and the civil rights movement on Wednesday did not evince the hope and joy of his 2008 run. It was rather a dire warning that Donald Trump represented the forces of reaction that lost to the civil rights movement reborn in a new era. That the arc of history may not bend toward justice if the people stop pulling it that way.
For this reason, it was vital to still believe in the promise of the Constitution. The civil rights generation and those before them, Obama said, “had a right to believe that this democracy did not work, and could not work.”
“They were on the receiving end of a democracy that had fallen short all their lives,” he said. “They knew how far the daily reality of America strayed from the myth. And yet, instead of giving up, they joined together and said somehow, some way, we are going to make this work. We are going to bring those words, in our founding documents, to life.”
Today, he said, he saw the same spirit in the Movement for Black Lives and other movements for climate justice and gun control fueled by youth activism.
“You can give our democracy new meaning,” he said. “You can take it to a better place. You’re the missing ingredient — the ones who will decide whether or not America becomes the country that fully lives up to its creed.”
The adoption of a civil rights movement mythos by the party is not mere nostalgia. It is necessary to situate the party in a history accessible to younger generations, who will be less and less white. The nation as a whole is expected to be 50% nonwhite in approximately 25 years.
Those young Democratic Party voters also have policy priorities that diverge from the top of the ticket and the current party establishment. That’s why large numbers of them supported the primary runs of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in 2016 and 2020 and support more populist economic appeals.
When Roosevelt sought to appeal to class-based economic appeals in 1936 he reached back to the party’s touchstones of Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, who both evinced suspicion and hostility to organized wealth and monopoly. Those two ― particularly Jackson ― may be off-limits as a political party’s organizing mythos if it seeks to appeal to the younger generation due to their role as enslavers, and Jackson’s ethnic cleansing policies. Dozens of state and local Democratic Party committees have already renamed their annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinners to remove the names of the two former presidents.
But a civil rights movement mythos needn’t be restricted to the struggle for voting rights and against Jim Crow that it is most commonly deployed to argue for in the present. It was also a movement for issues beyond the voting booth that ranged from housing policy to monetary policy to banking policy to labor policy, all of which were fully represented in the multiracial 1968 Poor People’s Campaign push for economic and social justice.
John Lewis’ mentor Rev. James Lawson, Jr. detailed this broader version of the civil rights movement in the eulogy he delivered for his former pupil.
The late Lewis, Lawson said, “practiced the politics of the preamble to the Constitution of the United states.” But those politics were not limited to voting rights.
“The media makes a mistake when John is seen only in relation to the Voting Rights bill of ’65,” Lawson said. “However important that is you must not remember that Lyndon Johnson and the Congress of the United States passed the most advanced legislation on behalf of ‘We the People’ of the United States that was ever passed.”
Education programs like Head Start, billions in funding for public housing, Medicare and anti-poverty programs, Lawson listed.
These were the precursors to the, “21st century social, economic, and human rights,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said at the convention on Tuesday night that Sanders’ young supporters campaigned and voted for in 2020.
As the Democratic Party moves forward, each faction can find something to use in the mythos of the civil rights movement that might bring them closer together. But for now party supporters and civil rights activists will judge a Biden-Harris administration, if it comes to pass, on whether or not its actions live up to the myths they’ve wrapped themselves in.