For more than a year now, the United States has been embroiled in racial, social and political unrest, culminating with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

In response, The Atlanta History Center is launching a five-year plan of scholarship and exhibits to get Americans focused on repairing the country’s fractured democracy in time for its 250th birthday. Going forward, democracy will be central to its research, scholarship and storytelling, said Atlanta History Center President Sheffield Hale.

“What makes it particularly concerning now is that more and more people are–whether they realize it or not–being attracted to anti-democratic, authoritarian rhetoric from what used to be the fringe left and right,” Hale told some of the city’s most influential decision-makers at a Dec. 13 meeting of The Rotary Club of Atlanta. 

American democracy is facing a predicament that requires both individual and community commitment to solve, he said.

“We must start tackling some of the causes and not just the symptoms,” Hale told the audience of more than 100. 

Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of Atlanta History Center

“If you look at the symptoms – whether that be anti-vaccine campaigns, not turning up at the polls, or the Buckhead City movement – one cause is a civic failure to recognize the mutual obligations we owe each other if we are to sustain a durable, self-perpetuating constitutional democracy,” he added.

There’s no one-size-fits-all remedy for fixing democracy Hale said, but “as a history organization, we’re thinking about the unique qualities we could bring to this debate. How can a history museum be a part of the solution in a way that other organizations can’t?”

The Atlanta History Center wants to “create an environment where we can have the difficult discussions around democracy,” Hale told Atlanta Civic Circle after his talk.

“Atlanta History Center will use its resources to explore the history of the components that make a healthy democratic system,” he said.

The history center’s five-year democracy project will include:

  • Programming, including conversations, guest speakers and casual gatherings held in notable places around the city. “These are all designed to encourage community and connection, focused around our shared and often messy history,” Hale said.
  • Educational programs that bring “history to students in our own creative way, free of any political influence,” Hale said.

The Atlanta History Center also will expand its digital presence by producing short films and documentaries. It is working in conjunction with other museums and history centers collectively known as Made By Us. 

“They have the expertise and are already engaged members of democracy,” Hale said.

These initiatives to provide perspective on American democracy culminate with the nation’s Sestercentennial  – or  250th birthday – in 2026.

While American democracy is under siege, Hale said, attacks against America’s political system have been worse at other times in our history.

The four-year Civil War, which claimed the lives of 750,000 Union and Confederate soldiers and threatened to permanently divide the country, is one example, he said. But the country survived.

 “Stop wringing your hands and do something about it,” Hale said. “Everyone has to do something to make democracy work. Without it, what do we have?”

Join ACC for our first-ever Democracy Book Club. “Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy”  is the graphic novel we’re reading. It’s a breeze to read and analyzes fractures in our democratic system and ways to return power to the people. Join us Wednesday at 7 p.m. on Zoom. We’ll be discussing chapters 5 and 7. Sign up here.

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