What Henry Ford’s Legacy Can – and Can’t – Teach Us About Civil Rights

If everything is an issue of civil rights, then nothing is. That’s one lesson you might get from visiting the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, as I did last week. While the museum offers some fascinating lessons in the history of innovation and design—including various car models from the past century, an example of an early assembly line, and a Dymaxion House designed by architect Buckminster Fuller, the curators also wanted to say something more broadly about American history—so they included some exhibits on the civil rights movement and women’s suffrage.

I don’t know what these pieces have to do with innovation or with Henry Ford (whose attitudes toward the dignity of human beings might be symbolized by a four volume series he wrote in the 1920s called The International Jew), but apparently you can’t really call yourself a worthy American museum unless you have exhibits devoted to civil rights.

This brings us to a wall of events that one assumes is supposed to represent the highlights of the history of civil rights in America. There were large plaques devoted to five of them: In 1965: “Cesar Chavez Leads Farmworkers”; in 1969, “Native Americans Seize Alcatraz”; in 2002, “Patriot Act Restricts Rights of Suspected Terrorists”; in 2007, “First Female Speaker of the House”; and in 2008, “First African American Elected President.”

What a bizarre collection of events. Who believes that these events are connected to each other, let alone that they somehow represent a progression of civil rights in this country? Does the fact that a Marxist union leader managed to organize farm workers of California somehow make it more likely that Nancy Pelosi would be elected to Congress? Does the fact that we made it more difficult for radical Islamic terrorists, sworn enemies of the United States, to operate mean it is a more difficult environment for electing a black president? And Alcatraz? The idea that a bunch of Native Americans who wanted to claim the closed prison island “by right of discovery” were somehow one of the most significant parts of American civil rights history seems bizarre.

It’s not that there aren’t interesting artifacts of American history and even of the civil rights movement in the museum. A few years ago, the museum purchased the bus in which Rosa Parks staged her protest. You can see George Washington’s camp cot and the rocking chair Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when he was assassinated, drinking fountains that say “whites only” and “coloreds only” as well as an engraved copy of the Declaration of Independence. There are jails with pictures of lady suffragettes and outfits worn by Klansmen. But these artifacts appear in a kind of jumble, with little appreciation for the underlying principles or progression of battles that have allowed this nation to become a beacon of freedom for so many different kinds of people.

It is a kind of easy liberal version of history in which we can safely say people today are on the right side and people back then were on the wrong side. It’s a version in which the American story is just one liberation after another, and we can rest assured in the knowledge that we will always be more liberated than our ancestors. But as observers of Henry Ford’s own life—with its heights of innovation in business and engineering and philanthropy and its lows of virulent anti-Semitism—will note, unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Image: By shwalamazula [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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