I grew up back in the days when many people seem to think America was “great.”
It was a time of blatant and unadulterated racism, when it took the hard and dangerous work of activists like Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and other Civil Rights pioneers just to get people to pay attention to rampant injustice and do something about it. When black children attended white schools, they were taunted openly and persecuted in a variety of ways. I was in the ninth grade when two black girls came into my science class. I was among the taunters, and though I later asked them for forgiveness, I still live with the shame of that.
It was a time when gay people had to stay so deeply in the closet that few of us knew anyone who was openly gay, which made it easier to accept the way homosexuality was routinely demonized.
It was a time when friends were being drafted for an ill-advised war in Vietnam, and many of them came home in boxes with flags over the top.
This is when America was “great”?
We live in a different world today, and I get it that many people are desperately hanging on to the myth that America was great when white people ruled, hardly anyone spoke Spanish, and conservative Protestant values were virtually unchallenged — but that day is not coming back, no matter who is president.
Although we still have miles to go, we have made important progress in the areas of racial and gender equality. We are clearly more multi-cultural than we were 50 years ago and many of us appreciate that, though some still resent it.
Not that we don’t have problems: political and ideological polarization threatens to make us weak, no matter how much bluster comes from the top. And, the continually growing gap between the mega-rich and the hard-working folks who can’t pay rent on the minimum wage is a social cancer that must be addressed if we are to survive — but our new single-party administration and lawmakers seem determined to widen the gap even further by giving more tax breaks to the rich and cutting back on programs that benefit the poor.
It’s a slim hope at best, but even so I harbor the aspiration that recalling the courage of Martin Luther King, Jr. on this day will remind us that greatness is not measured by how dominant any one segment of our population is, but how concerned we are with fairness and equity for all people.
Bombast and bullying may have carried the day, but it won’t serve the country well, and it won’t last.
America is greatest when both leaders and people understand the importance of humility. Only then can we hear the soft but determined voice of justice.