Source: Wikimedia Commons. Photographer: Tyler Merbler. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Dear AASLH members,
The attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 was a shocking culmination of the far right’s embrace of disinformation, bigotry, and violence during the Trump era. As history practitioners we know it will take time to fully make sense of last week’s events and the actions and rhetoric that preceded them. Law enforcement officials, the news media, and a wide variety of commentators and citizen sleuths are providing new information and perspective with each passing day. Doing good history takes time, and the events of January 6 will be interpreted and contextualized by historians for many years.
Some events, however, require swifter action. AASLH’s immediate response to last week’s disturbing episode was to join the American Alliance of Museums in issuing a statement condemning the violence at the U.S. Capitol, “a clear attack on our democracy and society propagated by deliberate deception and misinformation from elected officials.” The statement reminds us that we and our institutions “have the power to uphold democracy” and “call out bigotry and hate.” AASLH also joined the American Historical Association’s statement “call[ing] upon our fellow citizens and elected representatives to abide by the law and tell the truth.”
As historical institutions and history practitioners, it is our duty to oppose distortions of fact and misuses of the historical record, and to oppose racist and anti-democratic efforts to demean, divide, and subjugate.
Historians and historical organizations have a lot of work to do in the months and years ahead. Some have already been stepping forward to help explain the attack by offering historical context and analogies, illuminating its deep historical roots in the Civil War, framing it within the more recent history of political parties and fringe groups, and even naming the event itself. All of us must continue our important work at the local, state, and national levels. In and across our communities, we preserve and interpret history, promote historical knowledge about how we got to where we are, and, perhaps most importantly, demonstrate how and why to think historically. Every day in our exhibits, programs, and communications, AASLH members reinforce the use of evidence, fact-based arguments, and vigorous sourcing of information.
As a nation we must continue reckoning with our past, with recent years of political partisanship, with structural racism, and with a Civil War that still has not healed. Interpreting the American past in ways that are inclusive of the full range of stories and actors and relevant to persistent societal challenges is a duty our field cannot take lightly. Yet we must also embrace this opportunity to use historical understanding to open dialogue, heal division, strengthen civic fabric, and restore this republic as a democratic example for the world. In five years, our country will commemorate its 250th anniversary of independence; last week’s events made clear how fragile our democracy is and the awesome responsibility history practitioners and institutions possess to make sure it survives to 2026 and beyond.
John R. Dichtl
President & CEO
American Association for State and Local History