A post by Center Director and Professor of History and Southern Studies Ted Ownby.
Could Donald Trump learn from southern history?
We hear that Donald Trump is planning to visit the opening of the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson this weekend. I share the frustrations of people who worry that his visit could be both a distraction from and an insult to the people whose stories the museums are telling. If he does in fact visit the museums, I hope he’s there to learn.
In August, we all read about Donald Trump tweeting the kind of un-reflective single sentences about Confederate monuments that we sometimes hear from first-year students who haven’t done their assigned readings. I wondered then if studying the South might make Donald Trump more reflective, more observant, more cognizant of issues of injustice. Let’s stay away from lofty words like redeeming or saving and ask this question: could studying southern history improve Donald Trump?
In many ways we could say Donald Trump simply needs to study more, not specifically to study the history of the American South. But people studying the South have worked so hard trying to understand the perspectives of all people that the topic seems especially helpful. One clear example: scholars of the South frequently assign Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” When some white religious leaders said that the disorder of civil rights protests was intensifying divisiveness, King made the distinction between keeping the peace and working for justice. The people who suggested that all trouble-makers were only making trouble, King argued, were ignoring the crucial possibility of progress that came from working for justice.
Reading King’s letter and touring the museums in Jackson give Donald Trump a chance to study southern history in serious and thoughtful ways. Like everyone else who tours the museums, he should learn from perspectives on history that explore conflict and power, the formation of identities and movements, law and race, violence and nonviolence, creativity, and memory and why it matters. Like many people in politics, he should learn that history is about all of us, the famous and the obscure, the newsworthy success stories and the struggles that have been going on a long time.
Improving Donald Trump might mean helping him avoid a hate-filled spiral of decline through the discipline gained through study and the potential for empathy gained through reflection. I admit that possibility seems unlikely, but scholars who believe the world improves through study might take that possibility seriously. At the least, we can hope that if he visits the new Mississippi museums on Saturday, Donald Trump will learn some things and reflect on them a while.
More important than all of this, cheers to the scholars at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the Museum of Mississippi History, and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, and cheers to people who are trying to teach about almost impossibly difficult subjects against almost impossible odds.