Assassinations, Anniversaries, and the New America Now

Anniversaries are often that occasion when a spark of hope for the future is renewed in the hearts of individuals, a community, or a nation. People, whose lives have been touched near and far, pay their momentary tribute and respect.

Our newest national observance recalls the launch on September 11, 2001 of four coordinated attacks upon the United States. Every year on 9/11 policy makers, media pundits, common citizenry and our international allies remember with some relief the fact there has been no successful second event in the United States, we have withstood the onslaught of terrorism, and weathered every adverse storm. National recovery, renewal, and rebirth are now possible as a matter of course.

Internationally, the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria owes to the real threat of U.S. military strikes, and to our better belief in the possibility of global transformation, to our halting quest for a more just and humanizing world. Domestically however, with every act of homicide and mass shooting our most noble dreams and aspirations are once again sore tried, and we are called to stop and to remember the senseless loss of life.

In 1963 I was but a youngster, far removed from the fierce political realities of our national life, yet not unacquainted with the fitful ways of the world. On Friday, November 22, at 12:30pm President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the first sitting president since William McKinley on September 14, 1901 and the youngest president ever to die. In the aftermath schools and businesses closed early. I still have my Weekly Reader, the weekly newspaper that millions of elementary school children received back then, with the special memorial section and full-page black-and-white photo of the President.

As with the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor before and the September 11, 2001 attacks after it, the worldview of many Americans would be made more fragile and forever altered on that fateful day. The television coverage was nonstop, which is common now, but like nothing seen before at that time. Five years later, first on April 4 and then June 6 of 1968, the nation would be torn asunder yet again as the lives of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy were unceremoniously taken. Watching the broadcasts brought much of the nation together in utter bewilderment and grief. For the vast majority of Americans, where one or another of the lives of these men was concerned, if not all three, it was as if a member of their own family had died. Indeed they had.

Images of the three men appeared in elaborately framed sets and on cardboard church fans. In African American homes and houses of worship such imagery was commonplace. Occasionally, a picture of Abraham Lincoln replaced Bobby Kennedy. Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and King often formed freedom's trinity. These were shrines to the leaders of an America that Black America knew was not yet ready to be born. "In too many of our cities today, the peace is not secure because freedom is incomplete," Kennedy himself had intoned. The nation's "promissory note" of justice to Black, brown and poor America remained outstanding King declared. To quote Rev. Jesse Jackson, on this year's fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of the Sixteenth St. Baptist Church where four little girls were killed, we remain in excruciating ways "free but not equal."

The collective iconography of JFK, MLK and RFK is largely unknown today. It may be said that the rich tapestry of history woven by these and other martyrs of the time like Medgar and Malcolm has been lost to our national consciousness. To my mind, the absence more accurately reflects a national innocence lost. When we reflect back on 1863, 1941, 1963, 1968, 2001, or whatever year that triggers palpable optimism, ours is a glaring recognition. In looking to a future that will well order our society and enhance our personal well being, no shortcuts exist to social transformation or the redemption of our humanity. Our very domestic health and tranquility is at stake if we neglect the ceaseless imperative to grow and change. Coretta Scott King perhaps said it best: "Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation."

Certain events and achievements do inevitably nudge us towards the hyperbolic vision to which we aspire. We have only to remind ourselves of the epic civil rights campaigns, the subsequent shift in race relations, the shadow of the Cold War, the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the rise of the baby boom generation, the feminist movement, the sexual revolution, the "Motown sound" and "British invasion" in music, hair and style, the space program, the United Farm Workers of America, the divisive Vietnam war, youthful anti-war demonstrations, and the Stonewall uprising that all emerged from the nineteen sixties and served notice to the world that once intractable conflict, division and discord have routes to resolution grounded in the genuine democratic participation in civic and political life by us all.

Transformative change was a central theme of the decade of the sixties. Those individuals who ascended to national public leadership sometimes embraced with great reluctance and at great personal price the fierce demands of the times. As a nation, we were undergoing a transformation of meaning and identity that seemed to require ever more of our leaders, that sometimes led them beyond human accolade and adulation to a fateful encounter with death. In a commencement address to the graduates of American University in June 1963, just five months before his death, President Kennedy reflected, "In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

If you are like me, your dedication is to a just, inclusive, egalitarian, beautiful and verdant world. I envision a society where authentic human community can be formed, and where coalition building and long-term systematic economic and political organizing are but prelude to loving ties of care and knowing that bind us together in our resplendent differences. Across the countless miles and generations we have come some ways better even as tensions tenaciously sprout and grow. Some days we appear to have slipped backwards; on other days our progress is sure. In our current climate of domestic discord, civic hostility and the longing to retreat we must not surrender the longing to do justice and to love peace. If we do, we will never see an end to our human divides.

The full repercussions of radical democracy in the United States are often discussed but seldom realized because the participation of us all is neither cherished nor sought. Every American deserves a society that honors them in the fullness of their being - children, women, and men; gay, straight, transgender and category defying; black, brown, biracial, white and no census designation; disabled, neglected, rejected, poor and bereft; secondary, college, post-graduate and no formal educational attainment; Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Humanist, half-believer, true believer and no religious belief; indigenous, immigrant and of diverse ancestral origin; consumer, green activist, athlete and nerd; custodian, educator, veteran and nurse; the aged, the student and the young at heart.

Well into the twenty-first century scattered individuals, groups and communities across the land, some prominent but most quietly anonymous, persist in the quest for a new America and a new world. They are probing for the vision beyond with a spirit that knows no bounds. Meanwhile, America's disinherited and abandoned continue their elusive and resilient quest for democratic freedoms, dignity, justice and jobs. In industry, the ivory tower, the corporate boardroom, the halls of congress, houses of worship, and our neighborhoods and streets the impulse to exclude is second nature. We must seek to expand the meaning of these United States, not out of a trendy desire to be inclusive or diverse but out of a deep and restless hunger for authenticity.

How can we contribute to the nation's health and tranquility? Let us first be faithful to our own inner voice of truth where injustice is concerned. Let us unceasingly address our country's heavy legacy of exclusion and injustice, of discriminations grounded in bigotry and violence, stigma and shame. Let us confess the escalating cost of our material cravings, of our blatant disregard for the ecosystem that sustains us, and the resulting damage we are doing to Gaia earth. Let us be acutely aware of the consequences of our xenophobia, elitism, corporate greed, human profiling, and public rushes to judgment. In our internecine struggles, let us dedicate ourselves to a world where borders can be crossed and humankind can be celebrated one person at a time: E Pluribus Unum. We the People. A More Perfect Union. Let the new America now, a just, transformed and inclusive democracy, begin with us.