Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.

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Rollercoaster of Reform

Bil Johnson
Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.


As far as the constitution and the court go in the 20th century, it has been a real rollercoaster. Two steps forward, one step back step back, one step forward two steps back. So and as the United States emerges the great super power, which is a topic we'll talk about in a later episode with much more depth, its domestic history has had more ups and downs than the San Francisco cable car.

The first thing we're going to look at in examining the 20th century are some supreme court cases. And one of the things we need to focus on with supreme court cases, in this period of time is that, civil rights was a major issue. There's one big case you have to know. Individual rights were protected by the court during this period, as well as some individual protection cases. Well we've got here there is a little difference between just declaring what the rights are, to really specify what individual protection is. And I think you'll see that when we talk about the cases involved.

The first case that you need to know, is Brown versus the Board of Education. My guess is you've probably heard of that case before, but you really need to remember it. It is the landmark supreme court civil rights case. May 17th 1954, the supreme court ruled Plessy versus Ferguson, the 1896 case that we've talked about in the past, which said separate but equal was fine, was in fact the law of the land. No longer applied. Separate but equal, in fact was impossible. Once you separate people, things become unequal. That's what the court said led by Earl Warren, the Chief Justice.

So these civil rights case that changed the American landscape forever, happened May 17th 1954, Brown versus the Board of Education. It was a little girl named Linda Browns' family challenged the school board in Topeka Kansas, where she was being denied going to school with white children. They said that as a result she was not given an equal education. Separate but equal is dropped down finally, and the court rules everyone has to be treated equally in the United States no matter what the color of their skin, no matter what the religion, no matter what. So that's a huge case.

When we get to cases about individual protection, individual rights rather. Individual rights, Engle versus Vitale is a big case 1962, and it basically says that no child, no student in a public school can be forced to say a prayer. This of course is still incredibly controversial in this country. But the fact of the matter is, if we're going to consider that we have children in schools who are not necessarily Christians who may in fact be just Atheist or Agnostic or Muslim or Jewish, for the most part that prayers that have been said in schools in United States historically are from Protestant religions, Christian religion. So Engle versus Vitale said that that couldn't happen and that's a big individual rights case. No one can be made to say a prayer in a public place.

The next case Roe versus Wade of course is still hotly contested. It is the case that says a woman is allowed to get an abortion in the united states. The key thing here is it uses the fourth amendment's privacy clause. The fact that basically a woman has a right to privacy, what goes on between her and her doctor is a private matter, therefore requesting and getting an abortion is a matter of the fourth amendment and it's an individual right guaranteed by the fourth amendment.

Couple of cases that have more to do with individual protection, and they're really interesting cases I think. And there will be some websites on the bonus material you can look at to go study these cases in greater depth, if you're interested. If you think some day you might be a lawyer, these are great cases to look up. They're really interesting. There have been some wonderful books. In fact this one Gideon versus Wainwright is a great case, because Earl Gideon was a barely literate man who was sent to jail, convicted without being represented by an attorney. And he managed, he learnt to write and he sent a pencil written note to the supreme court appealing his case.

There's a wonderful book by a man named Anthony Lewis called Gideon's Trumpet. And it's about Earl Gideon fighting for his right to have an attorney, so that individual protection. Gideon versus Wainwright in the early 1960 is very important. The case that probably everybody knows, even if you don't know it by name, you know this from watching. If you watch TV, if you watch Law and order, you watch any of the cop shows, you know what Miranda rights are.

Miranda versus Arizona 1966, basically we all know the basic drill, you have a right to remain silent, you have a right to attorney. Well that was Miranda. He was arrested without being told what his rights were. He appealed to the supreme court and now we all have this individual protection of the Miranda case.

So what we see starting in the middle of the 20th century is a very activist court led by Earl Warren that's really looking to protect three things: the civil rights of all Americans, the individual rights of all Americans and to make sure that we've got individual protection, that's guaranteed by law. And these cases: Engle versus Vitale, Roe versus Wade, Gideon, Wainwright, Miranda, Arizona, are classic landmark cases of the Warren court and they're the ones you really need to know. I can pretty much guarantee that one or two, if not three or four of these cases, will show up in on the AP US history exam, because they are that important and they have that staying power. So it's important for you to be familiar with them, also to know your own rights. To know your individual protection, to know your individual rights, to know your civil rights.

Go to bonus material, you can get a little bit more information and dig some stuff up on your own because you know I keep telling you, I have some fun with history.

Something else we should be aware of about the 20th century. We've seen how the court, particularly after World War II took a very activist role, but it was a century that really in the first half to three quarters was really marked by reform movements and progressivism. And we've got three presidencies in particular that we want to look at here, that really carried that banner of reforms.

Starting right away, early in the 20th century, Theo Roosevelt Square Deal. Roosevelt of course inherited the presidency when William McHenry was assassinated, but then he was elected on his own in 1904. And after that period in the late 19th century, where monopolies and trusts had taken over the country and taken advantage of working class people, Theodore Roosevelt becomes a real strong advocate for the people. At least that's how he's seen. And there is a series of legislation, the Pure food and drug act and the Meat inspection act. We see books that come out that point out the horrible treatment of food, and the fact people are given really food they shouldn't be eating. The Federal Trade Commission is created. This is one way to regulate those businesses and Roosevelt really gets a nickname as a trust buster, that is breaking up those monopolies.

And there is an important series of labor laws. It's hard for us to imagine in the 21st century, that people didn't just work their eight hour day and get a minimum wage, and the children are obviously shouldn't be working in factories. Well in 1904, that wasn't the case. And it required legislation to guarantee you hours, wages that children wouldn't work in factories and things like that, as well as safety conditions for workers. That was the square deal from Theodore Roosevelt.

Franklin Roosevelt of course took over after Herbert Hoover's disastrous administration in the late 1920s; 1929 to 1933, in which United States plunges into great depression. Of course it's a world wide depression, there's lots of reasons for that. We'll talk about that in another episode, as well as you should go to the bonus materials and look for certain websites and materials, books that will refer to there. But Roosevelt with his new deal, really looked to create what he called Relief Recovery and Reform, the three Rs. These were designed, relief for immediate relief for American people who were suffering from the depression. Recovery, which was to get America back up on its feet back again working and Reform, which was a long term look at improving the situation for America. At one point, 25% of the American public was unemployed at the height of the Great Depression; 25% of people out of work.

Some things that we've seen, social security started under Roosevelt. Something we still have, obviously a long term reform. The Tennessee Valley Authority, the series of dens that provides the hydroelectric power all through the Tennessee Valley was a relief recovery and reform measure. The Agricultural Adjustment Act, the AAA, the Works Progress Administration, the WPA, the Publis Works Administration, the PWA. These were called the Alphabet soup agencies. And this is where the government really provided a great deal of relief and some recovery for people in the United States. There are structures all over the country that the Public Works Administration built. Millions of schools, library, bridges and so relief recovery reform was really a hallmark of FDR's new deal.

In the '60s, Lyndon Johnson idea for a great society, a war on poverty, was really highlighted by two pieces of legislation. One was the civil rights act, which really puts some teeth into the Brown versus Board of Education decision that the supreme court made. And really started to protect the rights of particularly the African and American people, but really all the people in the country. And the voting acts. One of the things we saw on the late 19th century and early 20th century, particularly in southern States, was that people found all kinds of ways to not allow people to vote. The voting rights act took the federal government and said, "We are going to have a great society." Lyndon Johnson really wanted to do that and put some teeth into that.

So what we see in the 20th century, are periods of strong progressive reform. Now one of the things we know is that things in US history is cyclical. Very often we talk about the economy being a boom and bust economy. That the economy booms for a period of time and then busts and we get recessions and depressions. The same thing is true about liberal and conservative, progressive and reactionary movements politically. And we see that the TR square deal is followed by the 20s in which the government really withdraws and doesn't really do much for people and it leads to the great depression. FDR's new deal is followed by the '50s in which once again, America becomes as a world super power. At home it kinds of quiets down except for the courts movement towards civil rights, and that's where Johnson's reforms in the '60s start again. But since the '60s and early '70s, we've seen again a kind of conservative reaction, a movement away from those reforms. And here we are at the beginning of the 20th century. Now we're kind of on the car spin we can go either way, and really that's part of the challenge I'm going to ask you to look at, and think about when we move here to some ideas and action.

I'm going to give you a tip here that will really help you with your AP US history exam. But I think it will really help you on a larger level, about thinking about US history and thinking about where you fit in. What we've got here is my challenge for you to make connections. And again, I think this will really help you with your AP history exam but I think it will really help you as a thinker. We should be looking to make connections. What I've got here is what I call an over-under timeline. We've got on top the 1920s, and then underneath 1960s, and basically we're talking about a decade here. The '20s, the '60s and then I've got today. And if we talk about from whatever date it is today that we're operating, to about ten years into the future, let's take a look at some things because, history does tend to repeat itself in its own way.

What we saw in the 1920s was that there was a ban on alcohol, there was prohibition. And there was a paralaw in the 1960s with drugs and drug lords. What I would like you to think about is, what's the connection today? Obviously drugs are still there but is it the same? Or we're going to ban cigarettes maybe, What else might happen. In the '20s we had jazz emerge as a really significant musical force in the United States. In the '60s certainly rock and roll, especially with the arrival of The Beatles and the music that happened in the late '60s right here in the United States. Certainly today we've got hip-hop and other strains of music. But is that really what we would say counters this, so that's a challenge there.

In the '20s we had Lindbergh fly across the Atlantic, no one had ever done that before. In the '60s we have man walk on the moon, so what's going to happen in the next ten years s far as man's exploration and conquering new frontiers? In the '20s there was a severe problem with the race riots around the country. St. Louise in particular had a particularly vicious race riot. Certainly in the '60s what we saw was the civil rights movement and marches for civil rights. What's going on today and what's going to happen in the future as far as civil rights go? Particularly looking into extending these rights beyond just the racial barriers but to gain liberations, women's liberations and things like that which started in the '60s.

Then kind of a side light, a cultural note, what we had in '20s was a real sports craze, baseball and boxing in particular, Bay Bruce and Jack Dempsey. And then in the late '60s football became the big craze. Particularly the American football league, people probably don't remember that, but it was an alternative league now it's the Afc. But football became the craze. What do we got now? Is it ex-sports, is it this, is it that? I don't know, you know better than I because I am way old, we know that. But this is really the world, not just that you live in now, but that you're going to live in for the next who knows how many years.

So making connections, thinking about history this way, these over-under timelines, we need to make connections and think about, okay something like this happened in the past, is seems to have happened a couple of times, is it happening again? Where do I fit in, where do things fit in? How can I make sense to that? And my guess is you're going to find places in the free response essay, the document based question where you're going to be able to apply these connections that you're making. But first you got to make sure that you're paying attention to them and you're really looking to go that little extra distance and think about where does it fit today.

In the last few episodes, we've looked at the constitution, the supreme court and in particular the strict and lose construction and how that has happened over historic time. But the real question, the important thing is, where do you stand? Have you been able to figure that out, have you taken the challenges along the way because that's really the most important result we could have, from you watching this episodes. When you see these issues and you really need to start to pay attention to them in the daily newspaper or on the internet. If you read it there, if you watch the news, really where do things stand, where do you stand? How do you interpret things, in what ways are you looking at the world based on the constitution? Maybe you never thought of that before but hopefully, after looking at these episodes, after seeing how I play that historically and maybe recognizing that in fact it affects you on a day to day basis, you will start to actively consider it. It also will do you pretty well if you consider that stuff when you get to your US AP history exam, because you're going to incorporate those connections to the questions you're going to be facing on that test.

In the next few episodes, we're going to look at this whole notion of rights but from a whole different perspective. We're going to see how does it affect those people we consider outgroups or others, because that's really been a significant part of American history. And so, we'll look at a lot of the stuff that we've talked about already, but from a different perspective in a way that maybe gives us some new ideas and takes us in some new directions.

So you may want to go look some of that stuff up on your own, go on the internet, pull out a book, talk to a friend, find somebody who maybe knows about some of this stuff, key thing that we keep talking about. And then I'm going to encourage all the time is to go out and have some fun with history.

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