Updated: Jun 10
Those who are my age are particularly disheartened by the recent events of bigotry and racism. It is a true déjà vu moment. We lived through the events of the 1960s where the system of domestic and institutional racism that had been born with this country and had continued unchecked for centuries had to be dismantled. The civil rights movement was a very strategically planned war, and there were many casualties as the organizers knew there would be. They followed Mahatma Gandhi's approach of nonviolent resistance that had ended the Raj period of British rule in India. They were met with fierce and very violent opposition. Power is not usually given away without a fight and freedom is not free. They knew that.
Their courage and tenacity got the nation's attention. All decent citizens were appalled by watching people being beaten and dogs let out on them and fire hoses opened on them. Who were these people? They were hard-working, normally law-abiding, tax-paying American Citizens. In some of the southern states, they were not even allowed to vote. They were not taking anything from anyone. They were just peacefully asking to have a chance of fully participating in the American society that their families had been a part of for multiple generations.
It had been nearly 100 years since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, after 3 years of a brutal civil war. It said,“All persons held as slaves are and henceforward shall be free”. Yet 100 years in the future there we were as a nation still living in 2 societies, operating under the Separate but Equal laws where everything was separate but quite unequal, and remembering the words that Thomas Jefferson had written in the 2nd paragraph of the Declaration of Independence of the United Colonies from Great Britain in 1776, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness..."
As the activists pressed on with orchestrated nonviolent protests that were all met with violent responses, the nation watched in horror. However, it was clear that the time had come and there was no turning back. It was not about small battles. It was all about winning the war that they had declared on hatred and bigotry. Their actions and the scenes of the shameless hatred and violence that they were met with got the attention of the country and of a president who had a conscience. We watched John F. Kennedy put the wheels in motion to right these injustices. We also watched his assassination on national television. Then, President Lyndon B. Johnson took up the cause. He had a dream of what this country could and should be. He called it “The Great Society.” Moving it in that direction was going to be his legacy. He sat down with Martin Luther King and the civil rights leaders, and with his masterful knowledge of the workings of the legislative branch of our government, navigated the waters and garnered the votes to get the Civil Rights Act passed. The House approved it on July 2, 1964 and 2 hours later, President Johnson signed it into law. The Voting Rights Bill was signed into law less than a year later, in May of 1965.
Desegregating the major institutions that was mandated by the Civil Rights Act and ensuring every citizen the right to vote has enabled us as a nation to experience generations altering accomplishments over these past 56 years. However, it has been a bit like a wedding car driving along with the distracting sound of the tin cans attached to the back bumper hitting the ground as the car moves forward. There has been a dangerous racist undercurrent that has remained attached in the hearts and minds of too many Americans as the car of Liberty has moved steadily forward.
We have seen inclusion of people of color at every level in this society, from the highest office in the land that is the Presidency, to physicians, Supreme Court judges, police officers, CEOs of major corporations, teachers, journalists, etc. We have come to understand that we cannot hate up close and we have moved closer together with friendships, marriages, etc. This was the dream of the brave soldiers who perished on the front lines of the battlefield of the civil rights movement, both black and white. When we live and work together we come to understand that we are not different in our humanity.
Through all the strides and accomplishments, that stubborn underbelly of racism has remained. It has been hugely responsible for keeping us as a country from truly achieving our full potential, Lyndon Johnson’s dream of "The Great Society". Unfortunately, like an infected wound that has been allowed to fester and grow in the body for too long, and has become cancerous, It has now threatened to undo all the hard-fought gains that we as a society have achieved over more than half a century. For our future and the future of our children, we must stand strong in our courage to cut it out. It is not small. It is more like a cancer that threatens to take the whole body down.
Those of us who came of age during the civil rights era thought we had already fought this fight and won. However, it appears that we declared victory prematurely. It is well past time for those tin cans to be unhooked, and the cancer to be cut out so this wonderful country can grow into "The Great Society" that Lyndon Johnson envisioned. The Vietnam war cut short his dreams of achieving that. We have another chance, and an obligation to this magnificent land that we all love, to lock arms, stand strong, and remove this impediment once and for all.