Network to Freedom Act of 1998: Liberation through Education

By Bruce E. Twyman, Ph.D.

In 1998, the 105th Congress passed and President Clinton signed Public Law 105-203. This law is entitled the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act of 1998(N.F.A.). This is one of the most important laws ever passed relative to African Americans. The N.F.A. essentially focuses on two key objectives. First, the Underground Railroad, in its full scope as a quest for freedom, is brought to a level of equality with the objectives of the founding fathers. Second, the law compels the Department of the Interior to coordinate through the National Park Service (N.P.S.), a national program, which honors, commemorates and helps reconcile past neglect of this freedom struggle.

The founding Fathers ideals of freedom, justice and equality have been documented , celebrated and memorialized for the better part of 240 years.  Their concepts of freedom and democracy are the philosophical bedrock of the United States; and, an example for nations around the world.  Nonetheless, parallel to all that the founders represented there was the African American quest for the same ideals of freedom. This historical struggle is sometimes highlighted in school curriculum and the national media. However, it is too often hidden, denigrated and distorted. The 105th Congress sought to address any historical oversight, which may exist.

In the N.F.A.  Section 2, Findings and Purposes the following is stated:

(1)    The Underground Railroad….was one of the most significant expressions of the American Civil Rights movement during its evolution over more than three centuries.
(2)    The Underground Railroad bridged the divides of race, religion, sectional differences, and nationality; spanned State lines and international borders; and joined the American ideals of liberty and freedom expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to the extraordinary actions of ordinary men and women working in common purpose to free a people.

Additionally in Section 2, the 105th Congress gives perhaps the ultimate rational for the necessity of the N.F.A.  : Although a few elements of the Underground Railroad story are represented in existing National Park Service units and other sites, many sites are in imminent danger of being lost or destroyed, and many important resource types are not adequately represented and protected.

As a remedy for inadequate representation and protection, the N.F.A. calls for: ….an enduring national commemorative…program of education, example, reflection and reconciliation… To recognize the importance of….the sacrifices made by those who used the Underground Railroad  in search of freedom from tyranny and oppression, and the sacrifices made by the people who helped them…..   To authorize, the National Park Service to coordinate and facilitate Federal and non-Federal activities to commemorate, honor, and interpret the history of the Underground Railroad, its significance as a crucial element in the evolution of the national civil rights movement and its relevance in fostering the spirit of racial harmony and national reconciliation. 

The N.F.A. clearly expands the scope of the Underground Railroad to include the entire historical quest by African Americans, to obtain the principles advocated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  The more commonly identified Civil Rights movement, began after the Civil War, intensified between 1954 and the early seventies and continues today. In the N.F.A. the Civil Rights movement is broadly defined, nonetheless, it is legitimized in all of its aspects.  The legal sanction comes in spite of the occasions when various levels of government, and powerful institutions, have led efforts to block the same freedom struggle.

The N.F.A. moves beyond this dichotomy ,and officially places the nation in accord with the just cause for Civil Rights as a matter of principle; while, acknowledging times of not being fully consistent in the application and enforcement of the tenants. This is comparable to the words of a particular religion, which serve as a guide to be sought in life, but perhaps not perfectly followed.    

The N.F.A. is an asset and a reminder for Americans involved in the struggle for Civil Rights, of the riotousness and reverence of their struggle. The law underscores the words of Martin Luther King Jr. in a, Letter From a Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere….whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”  The failure to address injustice among the oppressed can facilitate its spread to other parts of society.   

The N.F.A. directs the Department of the Interior:

The Secretary of the Interior….shall establish in the National Park Service a program to be known as the, “National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom “ (in this Act referred to as the” national network”). Under the program, the Secretary shall-produce, disseminate appropriate educational materials….create, adopt an official, uniform symbol or device for the national network, and issue regulations for its use…. The national network shall encompass the following elements….All units and programs of the National Park Service determined by the Secretary to pertain to the Underground Railroad….Other Federal, State, local and privately owned properties pertaining to the Underground Railroad….Other governmental and nongovernmental facilities and programs of an educational, research, or interpretive nature that are directly related to the Underground Railroad.

Additionally the N.F.A. calls for the establishment of, “a variety of partnerships between the Federal  Government and other levels of government and the private sector….for the protection and interpretation of the Underground Railroad.” Also, the Secretary of State is required to cooperate with the governments of Mexico, Canada and appropriate nations in the West Indies.

The N.P.S. national network program includes various federal , state, local and other public entities; plus, other non-governmental and private ones. Many of the participants who possess special skills, knowledge and attributes are made partners of the N.P.S. Partners are permitted to display the N.P.S. official symbol. These officially designated partners are required to be true to the designated mission as stated in the N.F.A. or they could lose their partnership.

In addition to the official national network designated by the N.P.S. it is conceivable to expand the network to include an extensive number of writers, scholars, researchers, artist, educators and everyday citizens whose work, activities and visions adhere to N.F.A. objectives. It is certain that the N.F.A. will compel and inspire many capable contributors to get involved in the process of commemoration, education, revelation, reflection, protection and reconciliation. Such participation could be facilitated by wording in the law which states,” the Secretary may enter into cooperative agreements and memoranda of understanding with, and provide technical assistance to….private entities.”

For more than 200 years, a freedom struggle with principles parallel to those of the founders has existed in the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights Movement.  The N.F.A. is necessary because the truth has frequently been suppressed, omitted and distorted. Consequently, on occasion the work of the national network may focus on corrections in the 200-year-old record in academia, government and media, which made the law a necessity. In addition, there are conceivable institutional forces, which seek to continue the mistakes of the past. They can even update, innovate and modernize the distortions for contemporary effectiveness. Nonetheless, the N.F.A. can proactively reduce the psychic motivations in some Americans, to denigrate the work and record of the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights Movement. 

The goals of the N.F.A. are reflected in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, “educate and inform the whole mass of the people...they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty” ( The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Series I, General Correspondence. 1651-1827, Dec. 20th,1787). Through the N.F.A., the Federal Government follows the philosophy of Jefferson. The ideological linkage of the Founding Fathers, the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights movement is made clear. The national network leads the effort to educate the public on this subject. If Jefferson’s calculations are correct, then freedom and justice should continue to expand in the United States for many years to come.