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Social and political upheaval in 1968

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Interviewer: Why do you think that social and political upheaval reached global proportions in 1968?

Eric Foner: We in the United States think of 1968 as a year of unprecedented turmoil in this country. I was an undergraduate student in 1968 and—this was before the Internet—every day you’d turn on your radio or read your newspaper, and you didn’t know what would happen next. Just a cascade of world historical events occurred that began with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, which destroyed the rationale of the government in the Vietnam War, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., student upheavals in the United States at Columbia University and other places. And then, rippling around the world, the French student movement and the national strike in France, Japanese students, demonstrations against the Vietnam War all over the world, Mexico City at the time of the Olympics in 1968 where the army fired on and killed large numbers of demonstrators there.

In other words, it was a year of global turmoil somewhat like 1848 or 1919—there aren’t that many years of global upheavals. But what was unique in ’68, I think, was it was young people who took the lead everywhere, just as in the United States it was young students in the New Left, in France, in England, in Czechoslovakia in movements against the communist regime there. Young people repudiated their elders, repudiated the existing political system, whether it was a communist system or a democratic system, or some dictatorial system somewhere, young people were repudiating the existing political institutions and demanding far-reaching change. It really announced the arrival of youth onto the stage of politics as the cutting edge of change. It had never really happened before—there had been many, many years of political demonstrations throughout our history, but they had never been led by students, by young people, so this was really a new international phenomenon in 1968.

The Great Society and the New Deal

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Interviewer: Would you comment on the social programs of the Great Society and how they compare to those of the New Deal?

Eric Foner: The social programs of the Great Society were far more expansive than those of the New Deal, or you might say they expanded the New Deal programs into areas that they hadn't covered. They also expanded the New Deal to include African-Americans, who had been kept out of a large number of New Deal programs. Many of the Great Society programs were way beyond the New Deal. Education programs, anti-poverty programs, environmental programs—all of those elements of the Great Society were more expansive and more far-reaching and empowered the federal government far more than Roosevelt's New Deal program, even though Roosevelt had laid the foundation and Lyndon Johnson was a confirmed New Dealer and had begun his political career in Texas as an avid supporter of the New Deal. But the scope of the Great Society was breathtakingly bigger than anything Roosevelt had put into effect.

Immigration Law of 1965

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Interviewer: What was the significance of the Immigration Law of 1965?

Eric Foner: The Immigration Law of 1965 transformed American society and race relations in ways totally unanticipated at that time, but looking back we can see what happened. Increasingly, the old immigration law of 1924 had become untenable and indeed an embarrassment to the United States. The United States was telling people in the world, We need you to fight on our side as part of the new world in order to fight communism, and yet you are not allowed to enter the United States. Eastern Europeans, Southern Europeans, and Asians were barred under the 1924 law. There had been some changes but not very substantial ones. The idea of race and national origin as the basis of immigration became more and more intolerable as the civil rights movement reached its peak. So the 1965 law, in a sense, went along with the Voting Rights Law of 1965 and the Civil Rights Law of 1964 as laws that tried to open up and de-racialize American societies. But one of the consequences of this was, because of the emphasis on family reunification and immigration on the basis of certain skills needed in the society, no longer on the basis of national origin, the origins of immigration began to shift radically. Since 1965, European immigration had become very small; now most immigration was from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia. This had tremendously increased the Hispanic and Asian populations of the United States and really changed the whole pattern of race into a multi-racial system rather than a black-white system, which had been the template before then.

Feminism in the 1960s

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Interviewer: How do you assess the reemergence of feminism in spreading the rights revolution of the sixties?

Eric Foner: The civil rights movement of the sixties, just like abolitionism, inspired numerous groups to take up the cause of their own liberty, and the feminists, the so-called second wave of feminism, is the largest example of this. A new women's movement arose. The women's movement had been pretty much abandoned after the achievement of the vote. Now a new women's movement arose, but its issue was no longer political rights, which had been gained, but personal rights: education, opportunity, economic equality, freedom in personal life, access to birth control, abortion, control over your own person, the right to live a lifestyle that you chose. The feminist movement pushed the issue of freedom into private life. It made it plain that there were questions of rights, power, and liberty even in the most intimate areas of human activity. So it really helped to expand the idea of freedom way beyond the public sphere, the economic sphere, into this realm of private life that hadn't been entered into much before then. This is part of what we know as the "rights revolution," the expansion of the notion of rights, partly by social movements, partly by court decisions, so that all sorts of groups—American Indians, Hispanics, women, homosexuals—were claiming more rights by the end of the sixties and early seventies.

The Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington

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Interviewer: In his second inaugural address, President Obama made reference to two major historical events whose anniversaries we are celebrating: the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. I’d like to start by asking you to comment on the significance of those two events.

Eric Foner: Well, the anniversaries in 2013 of the Emancipation Proclamation (the 150th) and then the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington obviously have a kind of symbolic connection with each other. At the March on Washington, Martin Luther King, at the beginning of his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, said, "We have come here to cash a promissory note." This is the promissory note of emancipation. 100 years after the proclamation was issued, he [King] said, "We are not fully free." They were still, in 1963, subjected to numerous forms of discrimination. They could not vote in many southern states. Segregation was the rule in many aspects of American life, as were many other forms of inequality.

Both of these are major turning points in American history. Obviously the Emancipation Proclamation, which proclaimed the freedom of about 3.1 million of the 4 million slaves—not all of them, but most of them—changed the character of the Civil War and made it a responsibility of the Union Army after the war to protect the freedom of those people Lincoln had declared free.

The March on Washington comes as one of the high points of the Civil Rights Struggle of the 1960s. It brought to Washington maybe a quarter of a million black and white Americans. It was really focused on demanding congressional action on a civil rights bill that had been introduced by President Kennedy but was kind of stymied in Congress. But it also galvanized or dramatized, I should say, for the whole world the importance of this issue and the depth of public support in many parts of the country for civil rights.

So it is appropriate to commemorate both of those events. Neither of them were the end of a story. The Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery completely; that took the 13th Amendment in 1865. And the March on Washington did not achieve civil rights; it did, however, propel forward the Civil Rights Measure in congress. These were moments in long struggles, both of them, but still extremely important symbolic moments in the struggle for racial equality in this country.