Four years ago this weekend, my wife and I spent the day after Pres. Obama’s second inauguration touring some of the national monuments in Washington, D.C. It’s an incredible experience walking around our nation’s capitol and reading powerful progressive messages carved into granite and marble, a reminder that the truly great Americans in our country’s history all had messages that sound very “liberal” when you break them down. They talk about justice for all, equality for every American, and freedom of thought and word.
One of the most powerful monuments is the one for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As I walked around it on that cold, sunny day, I was struck by two somewhat competing thoughts. All around me were young, mostly African American kids, hamming it up for photos and taking selfies. Unlike the adults around them who were more somber-faced and introspective, these kids seemed almost unaware of the intensity of this monument and what it represents. My first thought was, “Wow. We have really come a very long way in this country when black kids can be so lighthearted about this tribute to America’s civil rights hero. What a wonderful thing.”
My second thought, the competing one, was that it is more than a little scary that these kids don’t seem to realize just how tenuous the gains our country has made are. And, indeed, with the election of Donald Trump and the rise of hateful Trumpism, it’s clear that my fears were legitimate.
But, to be fair, it’s not just these kids who have largely looked past the hidden (and sometimes NOT hidden) racism that still permeates American society. It’s more accurate to see we ALL have, especially liberals. We’ve all wanted so intensely for racism to be consigned to the rubbish heap of history that we have moved forward too hastily, in many cases. The same goes for the gains made for women in terms of reproductive freedom and equality at all levels in our country.
In the coming years, we’re all going to be reminded of why Dr. King’s legacy is such an important part of our American story. And we’re going to have to relearn the many lessons he taught us during his short time as a true leader. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” he told us. That is a reminder that we’re constantly moving forward in the long term but that we can’t ever become complacent. We must always be vigilant and always be fighting racism and sexism and the other un-American “isms” that seek to hold us back, never allowing those who espouse hatred and bigotry to gain a foothold again.
If you have young people in your life, perhaps this would be a good time to remind them of this. Any American oldster can tell you that the ideological and political battles we’re fighting today are, in so many ways, a rehashing of the same battles we’ve already largely won in America. It’s up to us to preserve those victories because, otherwise, they can be taken from us all too quickly.