On this cold January day, the beauty of Yorktown’s snow-draped landscape is striking. Aside from the difficult driving conditions, it’s hard not to appreciate this winter wonderland.
Yet, any good spirits engendered by nature’s majestic display are soon extinguished by the most cursory examination of the day’s news. Specifically, that emanating from the White House and the tweets attributed to our president can make anyone concerned about the future of our country sick with worry. We seem to have taken many steps backwards in our ever-tentative and -teetering march to social and racial consciousness.
Today’s racial tension, gleefully stoked by our president, is in stark contrast with the sense of real progress that most of us had enjoyed in years past.
I can still distinctly recall the optimistic vision of Martin Luther King Jr., spoken on March 25, 1965, before a crowd of 25,000 marchers who had just trekked from Selma to Montgomery, in support of voting rights for African-Americans. When the march was over, Dr. King addressed the throng: “Like an idea whose time has come, not even the marching of mighty armies can halt us. We are moving to the land of freedom.”
His brief but powerful remarks ended with a most memorable call-and-response:
“How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.
How long? Not long, you shall reap what you sow.
How long? Not long...
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Was Dr. King right? Does the arc of the moral universe bend inevitably toward justice? Events would suggest otherwise. Three years later, on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was gunned down, long before any of his dreams of racial harmony could be realized. He died as he had lived: serving the cause of social justice, cut down by a racist assassin whose heart was filled with hate. At the time, I was working on Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential run. That effort filled my heart with genuine optimism about America’s ability to bridge the racial and economic divide that had so infected the soul of our country.
Robert Kennedy suffered a similar fate just three months later, leaving our hopes of a new era of racial healing a virtual impossibility. Many of us who believed in the spirit of the Kennedy campaign went on to serve our communities and our country in various capacities, remembering always his words, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Now, as the 50th anniversaries of their deaths loom, we should ask ourselves how much progress have we really made toward racial and economic equality.
Many of us prematurely assumed that the election of a black man as president was a sign that we had finally reached the promised land and that Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream had come true: “My friends, so, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ ”
We were sorely wrong. President Obama became the target of vicious attacks like no president before him. A new age of social media allows anyone with a computer or a phone to voice their opinion. We also see the re-emergence of a rejuvenated extreme right. And, as many of us suspected, the vicious attacks on President Obama were also, in part, the product of the same racism that Dr. King had confronted a half-century before.
Just as Alabama Gov. George Wallace was able to camouflage his racist campaign for the presidency in terms of “states rights” while everyone understood what he really stood for, so, too, Donald J. Trump became the darling of the extreme right as he took up the “birther movement.” Of course, we all knew what was behind the entire effort.
Now, the man who gained votes by getting people to hate sits in the White House. Who are the targets of his hate-filled campaign? Mexicans, people who come from Third World countries, certain strong women, Democrats, the media, most of Hollywood and, of course, anyone who gets in his way. Mr. Trump’s history of incendiary tactics is precisely why I couldn’t believe my ears when a week ago, the president told a politically mixed group of lawmakers that they should pass a “bill of love” when it came to immigration. Of course, the love part was for show while the main takeaway from a follow-up meeting was the now infamous “shitholes” reference.
I accept the fact that the path to equality and justice is never a straight line, but I do have a few questions:
How long must I wait to see the racial divide in this country truly end? How long must I wait to see civility return to our nation’s capital? Not long? I imagine that depends on how much responsibility we all take in our nation’s future. That’s the magic of democracy. We can change history. We must try.
Just as winter gives way to spring, so, too, do I hope that this divisive political climate comes quickly to an end.