I quite often say that we seem not to learn from the lessons of history. Oh sure, we remember for a while – a generation or two – but then the memories dim as the people who lived through that history die off and there is nobody to tell the stories with passion, with first-hand experience. The immediacy fades and we return to the old ways or settle into new ones. One example is Hitler and the Holocaust. My grandparents and parents well remembered those lessons, for they lived through them. I have, perhaps a slightly dimmed sense of it, for I was not yet born, but still a heightened awareness from a childhood spent hearing the stories from one set of grandparents, my mother, and my father who fought in WWII. And I passed many of those stories to my own children and granddaughter, but by this time they are 3rd and 4th hand stories and are losing some of their authenticity. Another generation and the stories likely will not be told at all.
Surely there are history books from which we can learn, but again, with few exceptions, written words on a page often fail to bring the story to life, fail to inspire or excite. And so, we may know the facts, while at the same time forgetting the lessons. Arrogantly, we believe that those things could never happen in today’s world, never to our generation. Two comments I read yesterday gave rise to this post and an attempt, probably feeble, to find something in the past on which to judge the political and social turmoil the U.S. is experiencing today and find solutions to keep us all from killing one another.
The first comment was by USFMAN, commenting on my post Be Better:
“You cannot outshout a demagogue like Trump so look for similar situations from history that might offer solutions. Gandhi’s idea of mass passive resistance and Martin Luther King’s Freedom Riders come to mind.”
The second was by our friend Roger (Woebegone but Hopeful) commenting on Keith’s post That Jesus Saying:
“The danger lies in the separation of the nation into quarrelling tribes who never listen to each other. This is not good. Does no one look back to the histories of the 1840s to 1860s? Does it take another ‘Bloody Kansas’ for folk to sit up and think, ‘there is something wrong here’”
Interestingly, Roger lives in the UK, Wales to be specific, and yet most often has a better grasp of the history of this nation than we who have lived here all our lives. And he, as well as many other friends from across the pond, see our situation with clearer eyes than we do. Perhaps there is something to be said of that expression “can’t see the forest for the trees”?
Anyway, these comments started me thinking. A very brief bit of historical context for those who may not remember the details.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 gave the territories of Kansas and Nebraska the right to choose, by popular vote, whether to become a slave state or a free state. Slavery being the most contentious issue of the day, tensions ran high, to say the least, and a lot of dirty politics ensued. So dirty, in fact, that when a congressional committee investigated a year or so later, they found that 1,729 fraudulent votes had been cast as compared to 1,114 legitimate ones! Needless to say, violence ensued: a hotel and two newspaper offices were burned, homes and stores ransacked, and murder & mayhem became the order of the day.
Long story short, a divisive political issue nearly destroyed a society, causing death and destruction. Now granted, that was in the days of the ‘Olde West’, and we are more … civilized today. Or are we? We have white police officers killing unarmed blacks. We have white supremacist groups creating chaos on city streets and university campuses. We have people refusing to serve other people in their place of business because of politics. We have a ‘president’ who incites violence, encouraging people to hurt others. Are we more civilized that Kansans in the mid-nineteenth century? Don’t be too sure. It would seem that we really haven’t come very far at all.
Which brings me to USFMAN’s comments …
How many times in the last year or two have I said that I wish we had another Martin Luther King? Too many. Martin Luther King was only one of the Civil Rights leaders some 50-60 years ago who worked tirelessly to bring about change, but what was unique about him was two things: his charisma that gave him the ability to lead, and his philosophy of non-violence. Martin, you may remember, had a dream. He knew what he wanted to accomplish. As I read the text of his speech for probably the 100th time, I realize that Martin Luther King’s dream in 1963 was not much different than our own dream today.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”
We have many burning issues today, concerning relationships with our allies, health care, education, poverty, immigration, guns, environment, abortion, and more. Most of these issues were not born under the regime of Trump, but he has fanned the flames of discord and disharmony in every single event. But at the crux of most of it is bigotry, intolerance and discrimination of one group or another. Discrimination against not only African-Americans, but Muslims, Latinos, LGBT people, non-Christians, the poor and even women. Rather than being able to say we overcame the discrimination that Martin Luther King was fighting, we have expanded it to include other groups – almost anyone who is not white, Christian, and preferably male.
Now that I have offered my rambling thoughts, you probably wonder where I am going with this, if I have a point. I do. It seems to me that, in the absence of a Gandhi or Martin Luther King in our midst to lead the way in peaceful protest, then we must each become those leaders, using our voices to promote ideas of equality, to insist our voices be heard, and to do so without violence. Colin Kaepernick was one such leader last year. MLK would have been proud of Mr. Kaepernick, for never was there a more peaceful way of protesting, yet he made his point. This is the way to win equality … the only way, I think.