- Professor of American Studies and History at George Washington University
- President of the Organization of American Historians
- Served as Hillary Rodham Clinton’s historical expert
- Considers the U.S. an irredeemably racist nation
- Opposes the Patriot Act
James Horton is the Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History at George Washington University and the current president of the Organization of American Historians (OAH), the nation’s largest organization devoted to the study of American history.
Horton’s particular research interests are in African American History. Prior to his appointment as OAH president, he was the Director of the Afro-American Communities Project of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. He has also served as the historical advisor to several African American museums, including the Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Ohio, and the National Civil Rights Museum in Tennessee.
During Bill Clinton’s presidency, Horton was one of two historians appointed by Clinton to serve on the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. Horton also sat on the White House Millennium Council from 1998 to 2000, functioning as Hillary Rodham Clinton’s historical expert. He traveled with Mrs. Clinton on her “Save American Treasures” bus tour of historic places, and escorted her on a tour of Boston’s historic sites.
In Horton’s view, the U.S. is an irredeemably racist nation that continues to embrace many of the bigoted views that once made slavery possible. Says Horton, “In order to rationalize this great American contradiction [supporting the idea of freedom while permitting the existence of slavery], Americans come up with the theories that try to rationalize slavery by talking about racial inferiority. Those theories of racial inferiority that are used to rationalize slavery outlived slavery. . . . It found its way into the basic fabric of American culture so that the theory may be there even when the people don’t consciously think of it. It almost becomes a part of the atmosphere of America. . . . What we find is that even today, although many people would not say that, somehow [slavery is] still part of the culture that we have to think consciously about and work toward removing from the culture.”
Horton believes that the “legacy of slavery” exerts a profound influence on modern American life. He elaborates: “The problem of race in America at the end of the 20th century is not the problem of slavery. If it had been the problem of slavery, it’d have been over in 1865. But as a Christian nation, a nation that saw itself as a Christian nation, as a nation that saw itself built on the principles of freedom, we had to tell ourselves that there was something about the slave that justified slavery. It is that justification of slavery that we are still trying to deal with, more than 100 years after the abolition of slavery. It would have been so much better if we could have said: I have the power to hold slaves. Therefore I hold slaves. Has nothing to do with the slaves. Has to do with my power. Then, when I no longer had the power, slavery is over, we could move forward. But because we are America, because we have this vision of ourselves, we had to say to ourselves that there’s something wrong with the slave. And when we said that, it put us in the position of then having to deal with that notion of racial inferiority, long past the end of slavery.”
While not an advocate of monetary reparations for the descendants of slaves, Horton favors reparations in the form of racial preferences. “The kind of reparations that I think we ought to at least consider,” he says, “are those that might be built into programs which would provide opportunities for people who don’t have them. I mean, for example, if you provided programs that would help in terms of education for those who are not in position to provide for their own. You not only would provide opportunities for those people, but you would give them a greater opportunity to contribute to the nation.”
Politically outspoken, Horton has frequently used his column in the OAH newsletter to condemn Bush Administration policies, including the “No Child Left Behind Act,” which he considers “seriously flawed.” Horton has also been a hard critic of the USA Patriot Act. In the May 2004 OAH newsletter, he wrote, shortly after taking the reins of OAH: “We must . . . not lose sight of the challenges that all of us face, inside as well as outside the academy. By now many of you are aware that the OAH Executive Board has agreed to establish an ad hoc committee to investigate reports that some of our colleagues are facing serious limitations on their freedom to teach in their classrooms, that their research is being hampered by increasing restrictions on government records, and – that under the U.S. Patriot Act – their library selections are subject to monitoring. This is especially true for students and faculty teaching in community colleges and public schools, although academic freedom has suffered at all levels since the implementation of new governmental security policies in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.”
In one of his first acts as OAH president, Horton oversaw the establishment of the aforementioned ad hoc committee and appointed David Montgomery as its chair. Montgomery, a former OAH president and a professor of History at Yale University, is a Marxist labor historian and activist. The leftist magazine The Nation once described him as “a factory worker, union organizer and Communist militant in St. Paul in the Fifties.”
Among the highest priorities for Horton’s committee are: (a) investigating “restrictions of research and surveillance of library use under the U.S.A. Patriot Act”; (b) eliminating the alleged “exclusion, harassment, and demeaning treatment of foreign-born historians and students by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the State Department”; and (c) refuting the “systematic denunciation of historians who have criticized government policy by Campus Watch, No Indoctrination, Students for Academic Freedom, and other groups.” These three organizations are dedicated to preventing professors from using their classrooms as bully pulpits wherein they indoctrinate their students politically and intimidate anyone with dissenting opinions. Nevertheless, the Committee on Academic Freedom characterizes such groups as practitioners of “systematic denunciation.”
Horton received his Ph.D. in history from Brandeis University in 1973. In the late 1980s and early 90s, he was Senior Fulbright Professor of American Studies at the University of Munich, where he assisted the German government in developing American Studies programs in the former East Germany. In 1993 he was appointed to serve on the National Park System Advisory Board, and in 1996 he was elected board chair. He has also served as Senior Advisor on Historical Interpretation and Public Education for the Director of the National Park Service.
Horton received the Trachtenberg Distinguished Teaching Award for George Washington University in 1994; the Carnegie Foundation’s CASE Professor of the Year Award for the District of Columbia in 1996; and the Distinguished Alumni Award from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 2002.
Horton has contributed to a number of television programs aired on the History Channel and PBS. He was a consultant in the production of the PBS series “Slavery and the Making of America,” and he co-authored a number of books with his wife, Lois, including Hard Road to Freedom: The Story of African America.