Advocacy beyond Capitol Hill
Lee White, November 2012
One assumption many people have about the National Coalition for History is that its work only focuses on Capitol Hill and the executive branch in Washington. However, the Coalition has a long track record of advocating on issues beyond those realms and has been increasingly involved in state and local issues.
For example, over the past few years, NCH has participated in efforts—at the request of our member organization the Civil War Trust (CWT)—to oppose encroachments on significant Civil War battlefields. Two high-profile preservation battles were decided in our favor.
In 2011, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board rejected a proposal to license a casino located one-half mile from the Gettysburg National Military Park. In addition to a joint letter from NCH, the American Historical Association, National Coalition for History, National Council on Public History, Organization of American Historians, Society for Military History, and Southern Historical Association sent a separate joint letter of opposition to the gaming board. NCH assisted the Civil War Trust in identifying more than 275 Civil War historians who signed on to a letter to the gaming board in opposition to the casino.
Beginning in 2008, NCH was involved with the Civil War Trust to prevent Wal-Mart from building a "superstore" on land adjacent to the Wilderness Civil War Battlefield in Fredericksburg, Virginia. NCH provided the CWT with a list of more than 250 Civil War scholars who sent a letter to Wal-Mart opposing the building of the store. NCH also joined a Wilderness Battlefield Preservation Coalition. In 2009, the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted to allow Wal-Mart to construct the facility. Due to legal action and continued opposition from the historical and preservation communities, however, Wal-Mart ultimately abandoned its plans to build the facility.
In September 2012, NCH was faced with perhaps the most serious state crisis in its 30-year history. Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp announced he was closing the State Archives to the public on November 1 due to across-the-board budget cuts mandated by Governor Nathan Deal. On September 21, the National Coalition for History (NCH) sent a letter to the Governor opposing the budget cuts, denial of public access to the Archives, and the laying off seven of the Archives' ten employees.
NCH also urged the governor to provide sufficient funding to keep the archives open to the public 5 days per-week and to rehire the employees that were terminated. The organizations who endorsed the letter, in addition to NCH, are listed at the end of this story.
On September 17, at a ceremony signing a proclamation ironically declaring October "Archives Month" in Georgia, Governor Deal shocked everyone in attendance by announcing he was going to keep the State Archives "open."
However, advocates in Georgia remain very concerned that despite the Governor's commitment to keep the Archives "open," his definition of what "open" means and where the funding is coming from remain nebulous. NCH's letter reflected these concerns and urged the governor to clarify his plans to keep the archives open and to follow through on his public statement.
Public pressure put on the governor by archivists, historians and other stakeholders clearly motivated Deal's commitment to keep the archives open. It also generated tremendous media attention including articles in the New York Times and Atlanta Journal Constitution.
To date, over 17,000 people have signed an online petition opposing the closure of the Archives. We urge you to go to the "Georgians Against Closing State Archives" Facebook page (you do not need to be a Georgia resident to sign).
Despite the governor's statement, the job is far from finished. We urge everyone to continue to contact Georgia's elected officials until this situation is rectified and the funding to save the archives is in place. NCH has posted a story on its web site that provides all of the information needed to contact the governor, secretary of state and state legislature.
Secretary of State Kemp claimed he was not informed of the governor's public statement in advance and unless additional funding was provided, he was still bound to carry out the layoffs and closure of the Archives on November 1. At this point there remains a great deal of uncertainty because of these conflicting statements from the governor and secretary of state.
Under the plan announced by Kemp, after November 1 the public could only gain access to the archives by making an appointment in advance. The facility would only be open on Saturdays as mandated by state law. The reality is public access would essentially be eliminated since the reduced staff wouldn't be able to handle the number of requests for appointments and still run the archives.
Kemp said he was taking this action reluctantly but he had no choice given the Governor's mandated 3 percent across-the-board cut for state agencies. Kemp has argued that an immigration law that went into effect in Georgia this year left him with no choice. Under the law, anyone receiving benefits from the state is required to document their citizenship by submitting a driver's license, passport or government issued ID to his office. According to an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution this requirement includes the 479,000 professional licenses issued by the state. As a result, the secretary of state's office has been swamped with processing license renewals and delays are mounting.
Right now the situation remains stalemated. To summarize, Governor Deal and Secretary of State Kemp have both said they will seek to restore the funding when the nest legislative session convenes in January. But there is no guarantee the budget will be restored. Even if it is, the funding will come too late for the seven archival employees who will lose their jobs on November 1. So on that date Georgia will have the dubious distinction of being the only state in the country without a fully functioning archives.
The situation in Georgia should be a cautionary tale for all historians. As we've seen at the federal level, historical, archival, educational and preservation programs have increasingly been seen as low-hanging fruit by zealous budget cutters. If the historical community does not let its voice be heard in Georgia it will set a dangerous precedent for other cash-strapped states to follow.
List of Organizations That Endorsed the Letter to Governor Deal
- American Association for State & Local History
- American Historical Association
- American Political Science Association
- American Society for Legal History
- Association for Documentary Editing
- Association of Centers for the Study of Congress
- Civil War Trust
- Council of State Archivists
- Four Freedoms Park Conservancy
- History Associates, Inc.
- Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference
- National Coalition for History
- National Council on Public History
- Organization of American Historians
- Society for History in the Federal Government
- Society for Military History
- Society of American Archivists
- Society of American Historians
- Southern Historical Association
Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.