I am grateful to PBS-TV for its documentaries looking back at American historical events from early in my lifetime and before.
For most of this year I have been trying to write an essay that explores how slavery, the Nazi Holocaust, the Civil War and the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s shaped history, these times and me.
Perhaps the essay would be easier if I hadn’t included the Holocaust, but it seemed necessary. My mother was a German war bride from Berlin who lived through World War II and the horrific Nazi era. Those experiences had a tremendous, though unspoken, effect on her that I have only come to understand during these past 11 years since her death.
Catastrophic historical events can affect whole generations.
Both slavery and the Holocaust have done that. They are different, however. The first is about exploiting and subjugating a whole group of people, even owning, selling and breeding them to create stronger workers. The second is about extermination.
Slavery has had long-lasting impact on our nation, culture and attitudes and it’s something we never should forget.
America and slavery grew up together. The first 20 African slaves were sold in Jamestown in 1619 – one year before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock and seven years after Jamestown raised its first tobacco crop.
The Civil War (1861-1865) began 242 years later.
That’s a very long time, when you consider that the United States is now 237 years old. The comparison underlines, for me, how entrenched and institutionalized racism and slavery had become by the time of the Civil War.
This has been a big year for historical anniversaries of events and eras that have molded our nation, our history, our government, economy and politics.
This year is the 150th anniversary of the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
It is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
This year, sadly, is also the 50th anniversary of the bombing of a black Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 15, 1963 that killed four young girls.
Those events and many others during that stormy time resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – a full century after the Civil War. The images of early TV news reporting played an important role, too. It’s hard to deny or forget the terrifying images of racial violence, police beatings, fire hoses and police dogs turned on protesters, as well as Ku Klux Klan murders of civil rights supporters.
Both the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement have tested whether a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are born equal” can long endure.
We have endured as a nation, but racism still exists and civil rights work in the United States is far from over.
Lincoln got it right at Gettysburg. “It is for us, the living” to dedicate ourselves to the “unfinished work.”