The repetition of history
July 22, 2020
“You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone—any person or any force—dampen, dim or diminish your light. Study the path of others to make your way easier and more abundant.”
~ John Lewis
Late Friday evening, Representative John Lewis passed away at the age of 80. Lewis had served in the House of Representatives from 1987 until his death on July 17, but had made a great many contributions to the country even before then.
Lewis was one of the original thirteen Freedom Riders. He helped lead the march from Montgomery to Selma only to be beaten and tear gassed by the Alabama State Troopers. The events of that day, which became known as Bloody Sunday, left Lewis with a fractured skull the scars of which he bore until his death.
As I thought about the passing of Lewis over the weekend, I realized how little my generation has been taught about the Civil Rights Era. With black and white photos used to portray the Selma March, the March on Washington and other events during that time, it is all too easy to consider that era to be “long gone.”
If Martin Luther King, Jr. had not been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, he would have been 91 now. King was only 39 when he was assassinated. Malcolm X was the same age at the time of his assination in New York City. Medgar Evers was only 37 when he was assassinated outside his own home in Jackson, Mississippi.
My grandfathers are in their 80s. They were approximately the same age as Lewis or King or Evers. My parents were born in 1958 and 1962. My generation, the often derided Millennial Generation, is only once removed from the events that were portrayed in our history books while in high school and which, from my memory, were glossed over as there was still so much to learn between the American Revolution of 1776 and the election of President Bill Clinton.
The Spanish-American author George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That quote seems rather fitting as I look at the events that have taken place over the past several years, but especially the past few months. I believe that, after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, it was easy for a majority of the United States to consider “racism over” and try to move on.
Yet, we are seeing protests across the country as countless citizens take to the streets to speak out and take action. My social media feed is a combination of people who talk about the tyranny of wearing masks, that it’s a step towards totalitarianism, while at the same time I see news reports of protestors in Portland being taken off the street in unmarked vehicles by federal agents. In the insulated community that is the Valley, it is all too easy to consider those events as “someone else’s issue” or to forget the comfort of being able to view it through a smartphone.
Even more unsettling for me are the reports of journalists assaulted and arrested during some of these protests across the country. While similar protests in Wyoming didn’t appear to have the same level of contention as those elsewhere, I would be lying if I said I was not concerned for my peers in Casper and Cheyenne and Laramie as they set out to document those protests.
I do not know what the answer is. Or, at least, I wish I knew of an easier answer. Racism didn’t just disappear and reappear with the election of Barack Obama or Donald Trump. It has been with us for far longer than we likely care to admit and we struggle to look in the mirror. Until we have the courage to look in that mirror, to admit that our history is not nearly as pleasant as we might wish it was, we will continue to see the unrest we are seeing now and the unrest our country saw in the 1960s.