A life dedicated to helping people and defending her beliefs, now in her eighties, Dr Hervey shares her views on America’s troubles

 

As well as being a civil rights activist and a devoted mother to six children, Dr Norma J. Hervey has three MA Degrees, a doctorate in History, and can list accomplishments like two Fulbright Awards amongst her many achievements. Dr Hervey retired from teaching in the U.S. in 2006 before moving to Central Europe. Now, at the age of 81, she enjoys an active social life while teaching at the Charles University in Prague, where her enthusiasm and passion seem to be far from dwindling. I sat down with her to discuss her life, her achievements, and her thoughts on the upcoming US election.

 

Hi Dr Hervey, you have had an extensive academic career, beginning as a BA student at the University of Akron in Ohio in 1956, and carrying on in various locations to the present day. What keeps you going?

I very much feel like I have an obligation to do whatever I can, no matter how little that may be. It is not a burden; it is what keeps me driven. I worked in the Civil Rights Movement, was part of the anti-Vietnam campaigns and wrote to Mr Bush before he invaded Iraq saying ‘this is what is going to happen’ … and everything I’ve said is exactly what has happened.

A short answer to your question is that I feel a responsibility, as a citizen and as a person committed to young people, a parent, a grandparent, I just feel that the responsibility is mine no matter how little I can do.

You attended university in the 50s and 60s in Ohio and New York, and you mentioned earlier your involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, what was your role in that?

In our community in New York, there was a lot more racial segregation than I realised because I was very young back then. So a group of us got together who wanted to do something about educating the community. We had various different people: an older attorney who talked about the law, African-Americans who had higher education who did not have jobs that reflected their qualifications. They lived in one area of the community and were forced to the same Methodist church because no other institution would welcome them. We then had a clergyman and me; I was a moderator because I didn’t really have anything else I could offer.

We went anywhere where people would allow us. Once we held an event with more people on the panel than in the audience but sometimes we would reach up to 200 people. I would introduce everybody and take questions from the audience members. I would spend a couple of nights per week doing this, leaving the kids with Bill.

We would hold marches and succeeded in integrating restaurants in New York who had always refused to serve black people. We also ended up getting jobs for black people teaching in the education system and ended up integrating the fire and security departments too … it was really very successful.

And your involvement in the anti-Vietnam movement?

The movement against Vietnam was also an education. We had candlelight marches but I was pregnant with twins during the high point of the movement. I remember somebody saying to me while we were marching that ‘this baby is going to be very compassionate because of what you are doing’ … well actually there were two babies.

We would hold open lectures, programs and teach the history of Vietnam. I did a lot of research on its history and the fact that they had been allies of the U.S. during the war, and how we as a nation were opposed to colonialism, so I spoke a lot on the structure of that. I unfortunately wound up ending some very special friendships because people were on the other side saying, ‘hey you’re supposed to be patriotic’.

It was a very difficult time to be in higher education. Those who were successful in the classroom were deferred from being drafted to combat … leaving professors with the question of whether they should pass a student to avoid sending them to war.

Looking back at all that had changed in the U.S., what would you identify as the Golden Age of American politics?

Well it is probably phoney, but the sense that we were doing something about civil rights and the belief that it was going to make a difference. That was really a very powerful high point for me.

Flipping this on its head then, what would you consider to be the lowest point that America has seen during your lifetime?

 (Laughs.) It starts in 1968 and goes through to 2008.

A 50-year period is quite some time?

Yes but it has been extremely messy. In my last year in Luther I was asked to speak to seniors on current events and I was initially flattered … and then I thought, what on earth am I going to say? I couldn’t go out there and tell them the world is going to hell but I couldn’t go up there and tell them the world was lovely, because it wasn’t.

I concluded with an apology for not managing to solve the world’s problems. I did however say that I was truly grateful that they were taking over … because I thought they could do a better job than my generation.

Speaking of which, if we turn our attention towards the upcoming presidential elections …

Oh, what is going on in America at the moment is almost like if someone made it up it would be too funny. If I were a satirist I would write the world’s greatest satire over this election, it is just outrageous. Nobody wants anybody!

(Laughs.) Well would you want any of them?

No, I was going to say that I hope the Democratic nominee will win, but that is not because I want them particularly. I wish Obama could run again.

Really?

Yes, but he can’t. I haven’t liked everything he has achieved; I heard Obama’s speech at Prague Castle when he spoke about the nuclear weapons. My son had said to me, ‘he is going to be too conservative for you mom’, and he was right.

But, Congress has been outrageous. Regarding gun laws, the country is like a wild Western movie, it’s horrible. One of my cousins teaches at Virginia Tech where all of those students were killed, we have the police killing everyone. It is just outrageous, that is not what the Constitution stands for! Even if it did, that was 200 years ago, and maybe it’s time to change.

People ask me if I feel at risk living in Eastern Europe and I say ‘no I feel safer than living in the U.S., … how do I know that anybody you run into and speak your mind to won’t pull their gun out and start shooting?’.

Madeleine Albright recently said that women have a responsibility to vote for Hillary Clinton because she is female …

I didn’t like that.

Having seen feminism take off in the 60s, how do statements like Albright’s compare? Does it presently reflect the objectives of the initial movement?

The thing is, I think feminism should stand for the same thing as civil rights and human rights stand for — everyone should have equal rights and equal opportunity, no discrimination based on gender or race. I wasn’t particularly popular at Luther when they were starting a major in Women’s Studies, and I said actually this should be integrated into all classes and not separated. It belongs in everything, sociology and history — but it shouldn’t be separated.

Moving back to the upcoming election, people now draw parallels between Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan, how valid do you think these are?

Ronald Reagan was a puppet. We had discussed that Reagan was suffering from Alzheimer’s when he was running for the governorship of California and it was bizarre to me that he would even get that far. He was an actor; people told him to stand there, look a certain way and say a certain thing.

But he was very good at that?

Yes, well, he was never a great actor but he never had to be for politics because most politicians are not actors. He was very good on TV, he also betrayed a lot of people in the McCarthy era. So I had no respect for him, but I also felt like people used him because of both his condition and his ability to relate to the public. He was a frontman, and I’m not sure if he realised that.

So in that respect is he different from Trump, who seems to be the man behind all of his own … I don’t want to call them policies, but ideas?

 I think Trump is like Huey Long. He’s a loose cannon and it’s scary, I just hope that he disappears. I get the New York Times everyday, and most of the editorials are saying that the Republicans created him by allowing all these angry people to suffer whilst less than 1 per cent prospered … they became medieval kings.

Another of your specialist areas is immigration history. Clinton quite rightly says that America is a melting pot of different nationalities. Why then, do you think Trump’s attacks on immigration are attracting so much positive attention?

Because people are looking for someone to blame. In the same way that Hitler blamed the Jews for Germany’s economic problems, Trump is saying to the American workers that foreigners and foreign trade agreements are causing all of your problems. Somehow kicking out the Mexicans and building a wall will solve this problem. I think it’s like a sporting event, people want to cheer and this is exactly what Hitler did too, I just think, ‘how do we keep recreating this?’

 

Throughout your life you have witnessed significant change between the U.S. and Russia, do you think we’re heading towards a new Cold War?

I’m going to step back to the 80s. I think Mr Gorbachev expected that there would be something like a Marshall Plan to assist the transition. I think it’s a shame that the USSR fell apart at the same time as you have the expansion and strengthening of the European Union. One of the things that resulted from this was corruption across the former Soviet bloc, and I think this is tragic because people were expecting a brighter tomorrow, and instead you had all of these oligarchs who ran away with the wealth.

But in terms of shifting tensions throughout your life though, how does today compare?

Well I have a friend in Russia. He is from Ukraine and wrote to me since the crisis started, saying that now he isn’t able to visit his parents’ graves because they are buried in Kiev. It was something he did every year to pay his respects. I think a lot of people are horrified, and I think a lot of that has to do with Ukraine. Saying this, Crimea was never Ukraine’s, that was just Stalin trying to make everyone Soviet citizens and it didn’t work.

I think NATO has been a negative factor in all of this, encouraging Putin to act. I don’t like him, I think he is disgusting, but I think it is unfair the way these pressures on him mounted up.

Ending on a higher note, this article is likely to be read by mostly students. If you could give one piece of advice from your years of experience, what would it be?

(Long pause.) Look in the mirror every day, and say, I believe what I believe and I’m going to do everything that I can, but I might be wrong.

I try to do that, I have very strong opinions but it is very important to not become one of those people who never question themselves. What you do is for something bigger than yourself, and if you focus on yourself only then you’re taking a step in the direction of all of these people of whom we are critical.

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