By Time Staff21 Lessons From America's Worst Moments
As many Americans prepare to toast their country’s past on the Fourth of July, there’s no escaping that not every facet of that history has been worth celebrating. In fact, for a great number, this very moment may fall into that latter category, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the nation and a growing number of people confront the inescapable facts of past and present racism. June polling revealed that Americans are unhappier now than they have been in decades, and a majority believe the U.S. is heading in the wrong direction.
It is hardly consolation to be reminded that this is not the first low point in American history. But a look back at that past does reveal that, at the very least, even the worst moments contain lessons that can still apply today. And if we listen to those lessons, perhaps a better future will be possible. With that in mind, TIME asked 21 historians to weigh in with their picks for “worst moments” that hold a lesson—and what they think those experiences can teach us.
As unemployment rose to record levels during the Great Depression, Mexican migrants and Mexican Americans were simultaneously blamed for taking jobs from U.S. citizens and, paradoxically, for living off public welfare. In response, immigration officials started deportation campaigns to rid the country of unauthorized migrants, while those who could not be deported because they were legal residents or citizens were pressured to leave “voluntarily.” With the support of the Mexican government, county officials in the United States often sponsored trains to return ethnic Mexicans to the border. The number of repatriated Mexicans is hard to know but estimates range from least 350,000 to as high as 2 million, out of which 60% are believed to have been American citizens—most of them children. However, only a few years after the final episode of repatriation in 1939-40, U.S. officials were desperate to bring Mexican workers back to replace American citizens who had gone to fight in World War II. The repatriation campaigns show us that the problems for which migrants are often blamed are not solved by their deportation. This moment is a reminder of the importance of not seeing those who live among us as “others” who can be welcomed or shunned based only on the need for their work.