1970. The start of the 70’s. Finally, untainted numerals to designate a new era. No more shadow of the 60’s. Yet the wounds of Martin Luther King’s and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassinations were only two years old. Wounds fresh enough to be tender and painful. It’s agonizing to remember that these history-making events occurred just two months apart. MLK is a hero, and rightly so. But I wonder if today’s youth even know who RFK was, let alone what he stood for and his accomplishments. One hero shot on the balcony of a motel, the other shot in the ballroom of a hotel. The black and white photos of these fatally injured crusaders now serve as desktop screensavers for my mind.
It seemed the moon returned to its first house, and Jupiter and Mars went their separate ways.*
Mayor Daley and the city were still reeling from the events of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Ancient videos show crazed young people with long hair being grabbed and hand-cuffed by crazed men in white helmets. The grainy film gives the era a ghostly feel. I remember driving with my family through Grant Park toward the end of the melee. It looked like a tornado had defied the laws of avoiding tall buildings. It was a mess, and I would never complain again about cleaning my room. The flower children were empty-handed as they wandered aimlessly through garbage and trampled signs. Those demonstrations are faintly remembered now for their attempts at creating something different.
I remember, however. I remember the fear, the uneasiness, the distrust, the pain. I remember it well.
Cities burned with untamed fire and with the rage of people who were tired of promises and non-existent goodwill. Neighborhoods were destroyed with the fierce anger of those who had witnessed heroes gunned down. Once-great cities still struggle to rebuild. Children and young people, filled with restlessness and a maturing power, grew to forget those travesties. They instead began to fuel a new, invisible fire with chants of “we finally got a piece of the pie!” Injustice and greed remained, continuing to fan the eternal flame.
The events of this past weekend in Washington, D.C. caused me to reflect on the time when the fires raged. There are stark differences between the two eras. During the original civil rights movement, countless American citizens were murdered, tortured and abused. Young people, of all colors, gave up their lives to canvass the south for freedom. Dogs attacked peace-seeking citizens, their already bruised skin damaged even more. Houses were torched. Crosses were burned in darkness to give light to the hate. But powerful speeches that children still memorize today were spoken to a desperate and anxious nation. Speeches encouraging us, all of us, to hold on to hope, to wait for the promises to be delivered. The children…the mountain top…the dream.
We, as a country, continue to plow, sometimes treading ground already sown. My fear is that despite our efforts to move forward, we’ll end up right back where we started. Or worse. That our plows will break, and our mules will die from exhaustion. If we don’t stop and observe, we‘ll overlook important pictures we’re painting for our community. Scenes that may have nothing to do with freedom, equality, or peace. How dishonorable it would be to all shades of our forefathers and foremothers if we do not teach personal responsibility, sense of community, and the power of failed good intentions. In our efforts to be ‘transparent,’ we ultimately resemble glass patio doors that haven’t been cleaned after scores of Chicago winters.
Due to fear of the unknown, our society has grown comfortable with listening to cardboard leaders without valuing our own individual worth. I hereby propose that we stop. Stop and investigate our history. Read about George Washington and our nation’s founders, and then keep reading. Read about slavery, Sojourner Truth and Malcolm X. Research the rich history of Native Americans and Hispanic Americans on the soil we now call “America.” Research stories about the Holocaust and the persecution of religious groups throughout history. Read about the Asian muscle that went into building our railroads. Then teach and discuss what you’ve learned with your children, with your community, to those with whom you have relationships. Closely compare how some themes shouted today may resemble unfortunate chapters from our past.
I was a child once, and I was a dreamer. And now, magically it seems, I am a middle-aged adult, trying to learn and harness the abundance of outrageous technology. But I’m still a dreamer, and I still sing. Most importantly, I still have hope. I invite you to hear my voice, and share my hope. My song may not be all that different from yours. They may even be the same, just written in different keys. Perhaps we can attempt to sing in harmony, even if we’re a little off-key. Harmony takes practice, but our children will reap the benefits. And like the air, harmony has no color, just the sweet melody of a smile.
Wow. I remembered the lyrics without having to look on Wikipedia. DOOM!! I think there’s life in this aged mule yet. If you recall, I said I was almost speechless. Now if I can just master this tweetie bird thing…
* If this sentence caused you to say "HUH?" please go to your nearest music download application. Search for The Fifth Dimension (artist) and/or "The Age of Aquarius" (track). The Fifth Dimension is/was an ancient, Afro-American, non-neo-soul pop group from a galaxy far, far away. The song is from a pre-historic Broadway musical called "Hair." It was made into a movie, but we won't discuss that here.
For my father, Gerald, with love