Window dressing, or the road to change?

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By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor

Hope infused last week’s broad Juneteenth celebrations and U.S. Supreme Court decisions protecting nearly 700,000 “Dreamers” from deportation and the civil rights of America’s LBGTQ communities.

Statues fell, flags with Confederate symbols came down, portraits of house speakers who served in the Confederacy were removed from the U.S. Congress. Venerable brands, which have long used labels such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s, announced an end to faces on food boxes and bottles that were born in racist stereotypes. Longtime companies that worked with slavers and profited from them, such as Lloyds’ of London, apologized to the Black community and promised to make amends.

Are these moves, prompted by the nationwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd and so many others, just the leading edge of overdue changes in America and abroad? Or simply window dressing; quick, relatively minor fixes to buy time while momentum for change runs high?

The court's 5-4 decision keeps intact for now the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation. (Below, students at Whittier College, now one of the more diverse colleges in the nation, celebrate their graduation in 2018). The court also voted 6-3 that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay, lesbian and transgender employees from discrimination in the workplace.

We spoke with Opal Lee, 93, who saw major success this year in her decades-old campaign to make Juneteenth a national holiday. “We’re gonna go through struggle after struggle until we come to the Promised Land. You gotta have some hope, because hopelessness wears you out, it drains you,” Lee told Rachel Jones for Nat Geo. “Even though there’s still much work to be done, we have to celebrate the freedom that we have. That’s what Juneteenth is about: celebrating freedom each step of the way.”

These are attempts to remember, recognize, repair, and rebuild a nation stunted by injustice—and unequal treatment of its people, historian Thomas J. Sugrue tells us. There is an unusual focus, as unemployment has soared and the distractions—say, sports or nightlife—have been curtailed, amid the deadly coronavirus pandemic. The recent decisions by the military not to keep taking to the streets against its own people and of the Supreme Court to protect marginalized communities may bolster the movement. Yet, American history, from the start, has been filled with ugly chapters where mass murders and thievery froze progress, as DeNeen L. Brown notes for Nat Geo.

“The solidarity of today’s protesters transcends the bloody racial divides of the past and may be a springboard for more sweeping reforms,” Sugrue writes for Nat Geo. “It remains to be seen if the uprisings of 2020 will resolve the long-standing issues of racial injustice fought again and again on America’s streets, but when many races march together rather than face off, the arc of history may be bending toward justice again.”

The man who immortalized the “arc of history” phrase, Martin Luther King, Jr., concerned himself in his final years with economic fairness. Yet the gulf remains. These startling charts via the New York Times are a starting point for anyone who doesn’t understand privilege, literally from the cradle (maternal mortality) to the grave (life expectancy).

Yes, it might erase a stain on American history to rename Selma, Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge from a former Ku Klux Klan grand dragon to Rep. John Lewis, who was beaten to near death there on a 1965 march to allow America’s rights for all. (Pictured above, Lewis with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders on a reenactment of the march in 1985).

At the same time, the next weeks could focus on ways, as King tried, to save and to better the lives of tens of millions of Americans for the decades to come. A group of academics and organizers, in an op-ed, seemed a bit in awe of the broad-based support so far. “Their stunning faith in the possibilities of American democracy will be their gift to both our ancestors and our descendants.”

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Today in a minute

Revealed: The partial skull used to reconstruct the face of this man was discovered with other human crania and animal jawbones that had been deposited in a Swedish lake around 6,000 B.C. The artist who reconstructed this man chose to give him a cape made from wild boar—one of the animal species also found in the lake. This is the first facial reconstruction from the remains excavated about a decade ago in south-central Sweden, writes Nat Geo’s Kristin Romey.

A Stonehenge rival?
Archaeologists say that they have discovered a major prehistoric monument under the earth near Stonehenge that could shed new light on the origins of the mystical stone circle in southwestern England, the Associated Press reports. Twenty huge shafts more than 16 feet deep were dug about 4,500 years ago at Durrington Walls, the site of a Neolithic village near Stonehenge. In March, Nat Geo’s Romey noted that remains of huge pig roasts indicated large gatherings thousands of years ago at Durrington Walls.

Not that T.R.
: The equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt in front of the Museum of Natural History is coming down. Museum officials, including a descendant of the former president, decided the statue of a mounted T.R., flanked by an African man and a Native American man, had to go. “The world does not need statues, relics of another age, that reflect neither the values of the person they intend to honor nor the values of equality and justice,” museum trustee Theodore Roosevelt IV, an environmentalist and a former Navy SEAL, told the New York Times. “It is time to move the statue and move forward.”

How bicycles changed our world: With public transport suspect in parts of the world struggling with COVID-19, bike sales are taking off. For urban planners, the push for bike-only traffic and broadened bikeways sounds familiar, writes Roff Smith for Nat Geo. “For a few heady years in the 1890s, the bicycle was the ultimate must-have—swift, affordable, stylish transportation that could whisk you anywhere you cared to go, anytime you liked, for free.” The automobile did much to crush the first bike craze; the jury is out on whether the latest bump in interest will endure.

Who was behind Father’s Day? Thank Sonora Louise Smart Dodd, whose dad raised her and her five younger brothers when her mom died. Dodd drew up a petition in 1909 in her native Washington State to mark the day in June, to coincide with her father’s birthday. It was declared a national holiday in 1914 but wasn’t nationally recognized until 1972, Nat Geo's Sydney Combs reports.

Instagram photo of the day

From Chernobyl: A battered doll keeps company with an image of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov—commonly referred to as Lenin—in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. He was born 150 years ago, on April 22. Lenin was one of the most divisive and prominent political figures in history, overseeing Russia’s transition into a fully communist state and creating and implementing Marxism-Leninism as a cornerstone of the Soviet Union.

See: Photos taken from illegal visits to the Chernobyl exclusion zone

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The big takeaway

Wonder Women: The Gal Gadot superhero blockbuster Wonder Woman began in Greece with a tribe of mythic warriors. These days, archaeology is revealing that the real Amazons were indeed horse-riding, spear-throwing, pants-wearing fearsome female fighters from ancient Scythia. Things just got a little ... exaggerated. “By the time Homer wrote The Iliad (around 700 B.C.), every Greek man, woman, boy, and girl knew exciting Amazon tales,” writes Adrienne Mayor, who tries to sort fact from fiction for Nat Geo’s History magazine. Pictured above, Amazons fight Greeks on a terra-cotta lekythos (oil flask) from the fifth century B.C.

Subscriber exclusive: The truth about the Amazons

Overheard at Nat Geo

Drought to change: Baarud, a five-month-old camel, tugs at Aadar Mohamed's hijab. Baarud means tough, a name the camel inherited from his mother, who survived three droughts and a cyclone that killed off hundreds of other camels in the village of Hijiinle, on Somaliland’s north coast. Women such as Mohamed traditionally have worked as herders, but the die-off of livestock has forced many to move to camps for displaced people, where they face an uncertain, often violent, new world.

Read: For these women, an age-old way of life is ending in the Horn of Africa

In a few words

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The last glimpse

Is the truth out there? The Harvard-trained astronomer was 29. He had a $2,000 US budget and access to a radio telescope. Frank Drake’s mission: Is there life out there in space? From that day in 1960, his mission changed astronomy—and has grown to hundreds of researchers, "including some of the brightest minds on the planet,” Drake tells Nat Geo. More precisely, he speaks with science writer Nadia Drake, who calls him Dad, and shares a bit of what it was like growing up with one of the world’s top searchers for extraterrestrial life.

37 years ago in history: How Sally Ride blazed a trail for women in space

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with Jen Tse selecting the photos. Thanks for reading.

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