Martin Luther King Day will be observed in our nation for the 26th time this year. Ronald Reagan signed the bill in 1983 and the first official holiday made an appearance on the calendars of Americans in 1986. Eight years later, Congress established it as a national day of service, and it became known by many as “a day on – not a day off.” Of course, it would be a full 17 years after the bill was signed before every state would recognize the holiday. It remains the only federal holiday commemorating the life and achievements of an African American. And this day to honor the youngest person to ever be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; a person who was shot dead at the age of 39 for joining the legions who tried to say “Look at this! Now!”, is important.
And it’s “recognition” by the government of these never-United States is window dressing for things that have never been meaningfully addressed.
Over the years, I have read a good bit about the Civil War, particularly about Abraham Lincoln. I will not champion Lincoln as a great abolitionist. Anyone who has read about him knows he was much more nuanced in his opinions about slavery, but what he and those closest to him observed and wrote and understood about what was happening in and to our country and in the hearts and souls of the people living in it has always captured my attention.
At the moment, I am reading Ted Widmer’s Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington. (check out one of these stores to get your own copy.)
It’s nothing short of chilling how often I find myself simply exchanging the names of antebellum politicians for modern ones. Replacing “telegraph” with “internet” or “social media.” Reading the author’s accounts of the destructively disparate perspectives of the people of America, some of whom did not want to call themselves Americans at all, has inspired me to share some of the highlights…lowlights?
America has struggled from the beginning, despite untold accounts to the contrary. Just shy of 161 years ago, as Abraham Lincoln made his historic 13-day trek from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, DC to assume power as the newly elected president of a rapidly disintegrating nation from then-president James Buchanan, the Confederates were mounting a secession.
Widmer writes, “It was not simply that the Southern states were seceding; they were also spreading contempt for the basic assumptions of democracy.”
At the same time, the “Lightning” (as the telegraph was called) was an incredible invention that would begin an irreparable change in the way we would understand what would come to be known as “the news.” It could carry information great distances, but “it could not bring Americans closer together. Some worried that it was actually driving them apart.” In 1858, the New York Times worried that the telegraph would make the news “too fast for the truth?”
We like to forget (In fact, most of us didn’t even learn it in the whitewashed version of history offered in schools) that slaveholders held the presidency for 50 of our nation’s first 61 years. The Civil War was fought to preserve or to end slavery. You can say it was states’ rights or the economy or any number of other “softer” issues, but just like adding “in bed” at the end of the fortune in a fortune cookie makes it funnier?... adding “about slavery” to the end of any of those other issues makes it more accurate.
Alexis de Tocqueville, French diplomat and keen observer of political and social developments in our nascent America watched Buchanan and saw what he considered a self-absorbed leader. He was deeply concerned as he watched him pander to the “worst caprices” of his base while distracting them from decisions being made about their lives and livelihoods. He watched as this president and his cabinet fanned the flames of animosity and violence by dividing their supporters and critics into “hostile camps.”
And perhaps most prescient was de Tocqueville’s warning “that America’s hatreds could become ‘perilous’ if left unchecked.”
Widmer reminds us that every democracy that had been known to our world when America was born had failed. Disintegrated. Slowly and undeniably worn away and ultimately demolished by “the well-known vices of the people: corruption, greed, lust, ethnic hatred, distractibility, or simply a fatal indifference.”
John Hay, personal secretary to Abraham Lincoln, who went on to serve as Secretary of State for both McKinley (until his assassination) and Roosevelt, wondered if “…democracy, for all its good intentions, was too idealistic for a world of such visceral hatred.”
I can’t help but wonder the same as I consider our current landscape.
Is ours truly a world of visceral hatred? Is democracy untenable in such a world ruled by unconscious acts and biases that are considered “free will” and “hard work” by those who want to continue the comfortable lie of privilege and supremacy?
What is our job right now, as people of deep conviction, about the value of each person and about the power of truth-telling? Is it truly possible to create a world in which character trumps skin color? What would that take?
This is what we’re talking about in this country. You can call it the economy or states’ rights or any number of “softer” issues, but we are talking about slavery and the myriad and insidious ways its terrible legacy continues to threaten our nation.
This legacy threatens our union now just as it did in 1776 when all men were most assuredly not created equal. And in 1861 as Lincoln became the president while US ships were setting sail for Africa to kidnap and collect more slaves. And in 1920 when the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, but southern Black women were functionally excluded. Or in 1954 when segregation in schools was recognized as the unconstitutional bullshit that it was. And in 1964 when Loving vs. Virginia ended legal prohibition of interracial marriage. And in 2009, when Henry Louis Gates, Jr was arrested for suspicion of breaking and entering into his own home. Even now, in 2020 when a white police officer can kneel on the neck of a Black man, George Floyd, in plain sight of hundreds of onlookers, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he is dead and his guilt of the crime of murder can be in question. And let’s not forget the incredible enmity generated by the double-threat of a Black woman holding the second highest office in the land.
We can trace America’s challenges back to all of this; the incredible lie of equality on which it is founded, but on which it has never been able or willing to deliver. The legacy of slavery and the systemic rot of racism in this country is officially too big to ever fit back under the rug.
Good on ya, America. I think 245 years is a hell of a go. Nobody can say you didn’t try to make it disappear, but the incredible lineage of loss, subjugation, dehumanization and greed cannot continue to be denied if there is any chance for this country. We have actually been here before. We can do better this time. We must do better.
Each of us must look into our own hearts and own what must be owned. Change what can be changed. Heal what can be healed. And say what has been unsaid.
I don’t know if democracy can survive in a collection of states that has not, for one day of its history, ever been united, but it doesn’t stand a chance if we don’t start telling the truth. On this day, each of us can honor Dr. King by looking inside at the content of our own character and choosing to drive out hatred with whatever light we can muster.
I will choose to continue to honor his legacy by doing my part to resist an epitaph of “death by hatred” of this not-yet-great nation.