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Nebraska historian examines civil liberties
March 28, 2012Tweet
“Who will protect our civil liberties?” Samuel Walker asked.
Walker, an emeritus professor from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, presented “Presidents and Civil Liberties: Scenes from the Oval Office” on March 21 in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities Conference Room. His talk was based on his upcoming book, Presidents and Civil Liberties from Wilson to Obama: a Story of Poor Custodians.
“Americans, in general, have a very weak sense of history, if any at all,” Walker said, listing a number of civil liberties Americans enjoy today that many people did not have when he graduated from high school in the early 1960s. “We have no sense of how they developed, or really how recently.”
In the early 1960s, 93 percent of the African-American population in Mississippi was not registered to vote. A woman could be fired simply for being a woman. Censorship was much more extreme. A person could be arrested, tried, convicted and sent to prison without once seeing an attorney.
The picture Walker painted is in stark contrast to the many civil liberties Americans enjoy today. He said this dramatizes how much things have changed and “how much the world is different from what it was back then.”
Walker’s talk focused on the role of American presidents, from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama, in establishing modern civil liberties.
“One of the most fascinating parts of the whole story is the contradiction,” Walker said. “You can’t just say this president was all good, or this president was all bad.”
Walker highlighted some gross offenses on civil liberties by presidents, including the Japanese internment camps under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. And yet, he also highlighted Roosevelt as a president who advanced civil liberties.
Through his research, Walker found presidents did little to advance civil liberties. In fact, he found more evidence of presidents harming civil liberties than helping them.
“Presidents have often been directly responsible for serious violations of civil liberties,” Walker said. In fact, a lot of progress has been made in reaction to atrocities committed by presidents.
Walker said Woodrow Wilson is responsible for “probably the greatest assault on the first amendment in our history.” Under Wilson, newspapers and magazines were denied second-class mailing privileges if they were suspected of “dissent” during World War I.
Wilson also segregated federal agencies. “He has one of the worst records of all American presidents in the modern era,” Walker said.
Why is it that our presidents have failed? Walker said the unpopularity of civil liberties issues among some constituencies is to blame.
For example, Dwight D. Eisenhower never publicly endorsed the Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate schools because of its controversial nature. “He sent a powerful message that he didn’t really believe in this,” Walker said. “Many historians have argued he encouraged Southern resistance to school integration.”
However, Walker suggests that Lyndon B. Johnson used his presidential power to advance civil liberties more so than any president. Johnson passed legislation on voting rights, immigration reform, bail reform and family planning, along with the Freedom of Information Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Progress is often made through Supreme Court decisions, but Walker said this is limited because the Supreme Court is only able to take cases presented to them.
According to Walker, Americans are much less likely to be concerned about civil liberties in times of crisis. After 9/11, Walker said public opinion polls showed only 7 percent of Americans thought protecting civil liberties was more important than fighting the war on terrorism.
“The process seems to be that in the wake of an immediate crisis, Americans are quite willing to toss the Bill of Rights away,” Walker said. “Given time, they come to rethink it and the public opinion gets a little more mixed in recognizing that what we just did was wrong.”
So, in the end, who is going to protect our civil liberties? If not the president, Walker said ordinary people have to step up to protect them.
He used the gay rights movement as an example. No real progress has been made for gay rights on a national scale, but local cities and municipalities have granted same-sex rights.
“There’s the sort of politics at the national level, where you have presidential candidates saying this and that, and then there’s things that are actually happening out here in the country,” Walker said.
And yet, Walker still has hope. “There are some things that do bubble up from the people, and establish some kind of substantial support.”