With a crowd of other children, I toddled through a school lunchroom, holding my mother’s hand as we moved closer to the front of a line at one of several tables covered with sugar cubes in very small paper cups.
When it was my turn, a nurse handed me a sugar cube, which she said I should let dissolve in my mouth.
My mother smiled and said, “It’s the polio vaccine, but all you’ll taste is the sugar.”
I didn’t know what polio was or why it was dangerous, but I knew it must be bad because my parents and teachers and neighbors were all so worried about it.
The year before I started first grade, my dad got a letter from the Department of the Navy, which told him that his discharge from the reserves was delayed.
I overheard Mom and Dad talking about how they hoped the Cuban missile crisis would be resolved before Dad had to go on active duty and, even more, before there was nuclear war.
I was in Mrs. Chandler’s first-grade classroom at J.E. Edmonds’ school on Atlanta’s south side on the afternoon that President Kennedy was assassinated. Our school closed early. The bus took us home to weeping mothers.
For the next few days, I sat transfixed in front of the television as our nation collectively grieved.
The president died on Nov. 22, 1963. From then on, my experience of the 1960s felt like riding a runaway train through dangerous territory:
- The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy
- Chaos in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention (DNC)
- Children napalmed in Vietnam
- Force, fires and fury in Selma, Watts, Newark, D.C., Baltimore and Stonewall
- Major blackout of electrical service in the northeast in early winter of 1965. (For reasons I’m still curious about, this “failure of power” in a distant place left me, as an 8-year-old, feeling more frightened than makes logical sense. I still get queasy when I think about it.)
Beyond the 1960s, there have been, of course, many other difficult things. Among them: AIDS; Watergate; the Challenger disaster; the Oklahoma City bombing; the terrorist attacks of 9/11; shootings of the innocent in Columbine, Sandy Hook, Mother Emmanuel AME Church plus countless other places; and “military interventions” too numerous to list but too disastrous to overlook.
In my 63 years, these are just a few of the unsettling things the nation has experienced, but 2020 feels uniquely troubling to me.
Not since I was an 11-year-old boy crying myself to sleep after watching the bloody riots in Chicago during the DNC have I been as worried about our nation as I currently am.
I’ve been madder, especially when children have been killed in schoolrooms where they should be safe and free.
I’ve been more shocked, as I was when planes-as-missiles brought down the World Trade Center towers.
I’ve been more cynical, as when I’ve watched corporate interests repeatedly use “freedom” (“the wisdom of free markets” is the phrase most often used) to cover for their greedy refusal to participate with the government to provide living wages and universal healthcare for everyone.
I’ve never been as grieved and worried as I am now.
We’ve lost so much:
- 228,000 fellow Americans to COVID-19
We are, I think, just beginning to reckon collectively with how devastating and destabilizing are these deaths – and the thousands still ahead of us. There are tears yet to flow, laments yet to voice, and desperations yet to admit.
- Young (primarily) African Americans to unaccountable state-sanctioned violence
The deaths this year of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and others call us to more (not less) than police reform.
They call us – especially those of us who “believe ourselves to be white” (to quote James Baldwin) – to dismantle, for all of our sakes, systemic racism and the white supremacy culture that undergirds it.
Tragedy will compound tragedy if we let pass this moment of reckoning without it becoming repentance, repair and transformation.
- Respect for facts, data and science
Politics should have to do with how we respond to facts, data and science, not with whether or not we accept them – with debates about how to act responsibly in light of what is, not with deflection and denial of what is for personal or political advantage.
- Commitment to the common good
Too many of us seem to think “we” can flourish even if “they” suffer. Whether we like it or not (but there’s great joy in “liking it”), “our” lives are better when “theirs” are too. Our lives are at their best when “we” and “they” resolve into only “we.”
- Awareness that character and leadership are inseparable
Certainly, there aren’t any flawless leaders; all of us fall short both of the best we know and of the glory of God. Grace, humility and discipline enable us to learn and grow from our failures, after which we may be better and more compassionate leaders.
While there aren’t any perfect leaders, good leaders have a commitment to integrity, which they renew in the face of failure and nurture at the points of weakness.
Over time, we do as we are; what is in us affects those around us. As Jesus straightforwardly said, “A good tree bears good fruit; a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:17-18).
In the 1960s, I had many restless nights because I thought the world was about to catch on fire; because the harsh words I heard people say about each other hurt my heart too; and because people seemed to forget, even some of the people who taught me the song, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.”
Why, I wondered, did there have to be so much fighting, bleeding and dying? Why were there leaders who made it worse instead of better, like Lester Maddox, Georgia’s governor, and George Wallace, Alabama’s?
I’m having a lot of restless nights now too. My questions aren’t as different now as they were more than 50 years ago.
If we don’t honestly grieve what we’ve lost, courageously face reality, wholeheartedly commit to love one another and insist on principled leadership devoted to the common good, the nightmares will come true.
There’s still time. Even more, there’s still hope.