Listen to the podcast segment "50 years after MLK" from the April 7, 2018 episode
As so many of us do, I was catching up on my friends with the help of social media yesterday. Scrolling through Instagram, two entries appeared in succession with one another and they told a story.
The first was from a high school classmate who posted from the 9/11 Museum in New York. 9/11 was the first dramatic event of my true, post-college adulthood. It was the one truly landmark event of the last 20 years -- if you don't remember where you were when you first heard about the attacks that day, you simply weren't old enough to know what was happening.
I haven't been to the 9/11 Museum, but I've seen the memorial. It's a solemn, sober marker of a dreadful day. From that visit, I specifically remember just how wide the scope of experiences was: Some people were stunned into silence. Others didn't appreciate the gravity or the solemnity of the place and were taking selfies.
The difference reveals a lot about who remembers that event as an adult, probably feeling truly threatened at an existential level for the first time in decades, and who was too young to grasp what was happening.
* * *
The second social-media post was from a friend named Nikki, who shared some photos from the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis -- at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered 50 years ago this past week.
That 50th anniversary brought out a flood of reflections this week. Quite naturally, anyone who thinks they have anything to say tried to say it. The amount of time that has passed and the broad consensus about the need for the Dr. King's movement together make for a recipe that stir a lot of people to try to amplify their reflections.
But I think I like Nikki's words best:
"Shout out to my grandparents, my friends' grandparents, aunties and uncles who were brave enough to risk life and limb to call a spade a spade, march, Freedom ride, boycott, protest, sit-in, and register themselves and other people of color to vote so I don't ever have to worry about using the Green Book or eating a shoe box lunch when I travel"
See, Nikki is black, and she's from the Deep South. When she talks about family risking life and limb, she means it literally. She's thanking people whose hands she can actually shake.
Nikki and I were both born about a decade after Dr. King was assassinated. That seemed infinitely long ago when I read about it in history textbooks, but 9/11 was more than 16 years ago -- so that event, which I remember so vividly, is already even farther in the rear-view mirror for my own young kids than 1968 ever was for me.
Part of me is shocked by just how bad things were just that close to my own arrival on this planet. How could people have been so cruel so shortly before the world I entered?
Part of me is proud of just how far we can go in a generation or two to make our world a better place to live. It's a testament to the power of justice and the moral sense of our people.
Part of me fears that we don't often appreciate just how much things can change, whether we're trying to make them change or not. The course of history isn't static; it is shaped by those who choose to direct it.
Part of me wonders what improvements we're setting into motion right now that will have a landmark effect 50 years from now.
* * *
What we marked was the anniversary of a man's death, but it's a wayfinding marker on the path from the country we were before the era of people demanding their rights be protected regardless of the color of their skin. History can be really uncomfortable sometimes, especially when we insist on honesty -- on acknowledging the good and the bad alike.
Admitting that we have been an imperfect country isn't disloyal or traitorous. Admitting that we have been an imperfect country (and that we remain imperfect) is the only thing we can do if we want to be better.
We're humans, and humans make mistakes and bad choices. (A tiny sliver of our fellow people are even psychopaths, like the kind of person who would murder a civil-rights leader.) But most people at least aspire to be good by their nature, and to do the right thing when they think they can.
But doing the right thing is a constructive process. It takes steps that build on one another. And it doesn't happen without one generation conferring all of the lessons they've learned onto the next generation. That's why we build museums and teach history. But it's a much bigger challenge than that.
Lately, some people in some prominent places have tried to make "being an American" into an issue of birth and blood. I defy anyone to show where loyalty to the Constitution, to limited government, or to individual liberty under the rule of law can be found in the human genome.
Those things aren't passed along in your genes, and anyone who says otherwise is being un-American.
Being "American" is something that only passes along when we consciously practice handing it off -- including warning the next generation where we and our predecessors went wrong, so that they don't make the same unforced errors. This isn't a perfect country, and it isn't about to become one. But it's one that can make fewer and fewer mistakes with each passing generation, as long as we don't fall for the lie that it's found in our genes, but instead face the facts (including our imperfections) and actually try to hand off something better to our kids, while teaching them how to improve on our own shortcomings.
We've come a long way as a country since Dr. King took a stand that got him killed. But that past is still within physical reach -- as real as the grandparents, aunts, and uncles whom my friend Nikki talked about. And it's just as real as the experience I had reliving 9/11 through my old classmate's photos.
What matters now is what we're doing that will make a difference 10 years from now, or even 50. Anyone who thinks a better world will be passed along just because some people are having children doesn't really appreciate what we have. Civilization takes work, and it takes humility, too.