In September 2021, the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) awarded $2.8 million in funding to state and jurisdictional humanities councils to support civic education, American history programs, and opportunities to explore democracy nationwide through its “A More Perfect Union” (AMPU) Initiative. Since then, the 56 councils have designed and delivered humanities projects that inspire Americans to reflect on the meaning of citizenship and build skills to participate in a just and meaningful civic life. To help Americans commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026, “A More Perfect Union” programs support the study of governance and creating a “more just, inclusive, and sustainable society” throughout American history. NEH’s “A More Perfect Union” Initiative illustrates the essential role the humanities play in democracy, bolsters civic participation, and deepens public understanding of the core principles of the United States of America.
Each of the humanities councils and interim partners received $50,000 to design scholar-led programs that encourage engagement, collective reflection, and community discussion of the rights and responsibilities of active citizenship. In this two-part blog series, we will explore the curation, collaborations, and community outcomes of five different “A More Perfect Union” programs across the nation.
Throughout the state of Mississippi, communities gathered together to discuss the American value of freedom during Mississippi Humanities Councils’ “Freedom Tour.” A three-part Ideas on Tap discussion series, this public program explored questions like what does freedom mean to you? and who is free in America?, while uplifting the ways in which freedom is “unique to all of us.” Traveling to three prominent cities, Natchez, Jackson, and Columbus, the Freedom Tour invited Mississippians of all backgrounds to engage in meaningful public discussion on the nuances of freedom through various lenses of identity and socio-economic location. Made up of local historians, civil rights organizers and activists, members of the NAACP, immigrants, lawyers, and scholars, the Freedom Tour featured panelists of diverse backgrounds and experiences to demonstrate the differences in understanding of freedom and provide historical and political context for the topic.
“We made sure to have panelists from different sexual orientations, political, religious, gender, and racial backgrounds that didn’t all share the same understanding of freedom,” said John Spann, Program & Outreach Officer at Mississippi Humanities Council and coordinator of the Tour. “Due to the diverse panel makeup at every stop on the Freedom Tour, civic discourse among our audiences was provoked and uplifted. The program encouraged people to get out of their silos and share with others that might not agree with them.”
Kicking off amidst the height of political polarization among lawmakers and jurists in Washington, D.C., in June 2022, the program garnered a lot of publicity. “People were vulnerable and emotions were high, but our audience members decided to listen and learn from the shared points of view,” said Spann. “This was evident when each program ended. Instead of our guests leaving immediately, most of the audience stayed and continued to converse and share with people who disagreed with them. This was very powerful to see at all three stops along the tour.”
In addition to the panel discussions, the council also created a traveling exhibition that highlights the lives and legacies of 12 Mississippians who challenged the state and nation to become “a more perfect union.” The “More Perfect Union: Mississippi Founders” exhibit features Ida B. Wells-Barnett, John Roy Lynch, Thomas W. Stringer, Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, Lawrence Guyot, Aaron Henry, Unita Blackwell, Clarie Collins Harvey, Amzie Moore, Medgar Evers, and Vernon Dahmer. “These individuals put their lives on the line, and some paid the ultimate sacrifice in striving for a true democracy in America,” says Spann. “We dare to say that these individuals are the founders of Mississippi, the founders of a democracy that dares to say that all men are created equal and uplifts the ideals of the American constitution.” Accompanied by twelve visual interstitials such as Congressman Bennie G. Thompson, Senator Roger Wicker, and Reena Evers-Everette, the exhibit shows how these 12 founders should be seen and celebrated beyond Black History Month, as figures of American history.
“These individuals were patriots of America and should be revered in the same light as Patrick Henry and Alexander Hamilton,” said Spann. Carefully curated by a committee of six college professors from various Mississippi institutions, the “Mississippi Founders” exhibit honors the events and individuals that shaped democracy during the Civil Rights Movement, a major time where ideas of democracy, “citizenship,” and civic duty were in full focus in the state. “We knew that a project that is heavily rooted in the Civil Rights Movement could get mislabeled for Black History Month material and only that. So, we decided to frame our potential honorees as founders of a true democracy in Mississippi,” said Spann. Touring colleges, libraries, and museums throughout the state, the “Mississippi Founders” exhibit has been both deeply impactful and well received overall.
Meanwhile in the Midwest, Humanities Nebraska’s Chautauqua program also highlights connections between democracy’s past and the present in similar touring fashion. Engaging communities through oral history, literary readings, and musical entertainment, Chautauqua offers opportunities to explore how culture, key time periods, and events of the nation’s past still impact society today. With origins dating back to the late 19th century, Chautauqua touring groups were created to entertain and inform people living in the plains about “political and cultural happenings.” First taking off in a resort community in New York State in the summer of 1875, the tradition of Chautauqua gained popularity and soon came to life in other areas of the country. Today, Humanities Nebraska has reimagined Chautauqua to include contemporary experts and scholars-in residence presenting first-person portrayals of historical figures to illustrate how historic events and achievements affect civic life today. This family-friendly program offers activities, education, entertainment, and community-based heritage for people of all ages.
“We appreciated the different directions that we were able to take with this initiative as it really allowed us to augment our existing programming to have more of a civics and American history focus,” said Kristi Hayek Carley, Program Manager at Humanities Nebraska. “While [Capitol Forum on America’s Future] is very geared toward civic education, we had the opportunity through Chautauqua to delve deeply within the decade of the 1950s to explore political, social, cultural, and international developments/issues of the time, and through our wonderful scholars, help the public make connections between the 1950s and our past and present.”
On July 28-30, 2022, the city of McCook hosted the “The Fifties in Focus” Chautauqua stop. This two-day event dove into a decade of American history that is often revered through a lens of nostalgia and romanticism. However, the 50s also presented extensive societal change that wasn’t always idyllic. “The Fifties in Focus” Chautauqua program highlighted racial tensions and the struggle for justice during the Civil Rights Movement and the escalation of the Cold and Korean Wars, which had ramifications around the world. Other significant factors during this time period included world Superpowers competing in an unprecedented space race, marginalized groups maneuvering unjust labor markets, a U.S. baby boom that strained domestic resources, and the rise of McCarthyism, which “compromised families, friendships, and working relationships alike.” Through book club discussions of Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, musical concerts, kid’s games, car exhibits, public lectures, and more, the figures, social themes, and historical events of the 1950s were brought to life in a way Nebraskans could engage with and relate to today.
With support from a diversity of partners, businesses, and individuals, Humanities Nebraska worked with more than 10 organizations to make the 2022 Nebraska Chautauqua possible—broadening support, increasing access, and deepening connections to the humanities in under-reached areas of the state. “I would say that the most important element of the ‘A More Perfect Union’ funding was that it diversified our funding streams a little more, making it possible for us to reach a part of our state we haven’t visited with Chautauqua for over 30 years,” shared Carley. “AMPU funding also helped to leverage quite a bit of local support toward the program as well.”
NEH’s “A More Perfect Union” funding reached far-and-wide in Nebraska, expanding access to educational opportunities, community engagement, and reflection on American history and civic life. “All of the projects at Humanities Nebraska where ‘A More Perfect Union’ funding was used helped us increase our reach either to new audiences or to more geographic locations,” said Carley. “The support from NEH allowed for us to build and strengthen relationships with people and organizations in McCook (during the planning stages as well as during the multi-day event), which was so valuable to our overall work in this time in the pandemic.”
Through “A More Perfect Union” programs, Americans across the states and territories are engaging with critical concepts of freedom, civic life, and constitutional democracy. Drawing various organizations, institutions, and individuals together, humanities councils are expanding awareness of the diverse perspectives, histories, and experiences woven into the fabric of U.S. democracy. In collaboration with NEH, councils will continue to engage with the nation’s past, foster meaningful civil discourse, and highlight the importance of community engagement to create a more perfect union for generations to come.
This is the first of two stories that highlight the histories, processes, and community impacts of five different “A More Perfect Union” projects across the United States and Territories.
Written by Jazzy DiMeglio