Alex Yarde looks at the politics of today through the lens of History and wonders, is this really the best our Democracy can muster?
It was an old-fashioned Mississippi lynching, which was carried out by members of the Klan with the help of county officials. A lynching that came to symbolize hardcore resistance to integration. Three young civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney were beaten, shot and buried in a shallow grave under the cover of darkness on a lonely road in Neshoba County, Mississippi. Many people predicted such a tragedy when the Mississippi Summer Project was announced in April 1964. That fact did not deter them. This Project brought hundreds of college-age integration volunteers to “the most totalitarian state in the country.” The FBI’s all-out search for the conspirators who killed the three young men, depicted in the movie “Mississippi Burning,” was successful. This led three years later to a trial in the courtroom of one of America’s most determined segregationist judges.
The trial and the aftermath are well documented. It is obvious those young men died for the crime of simply wanting every American to share the same rights, be represented fairly and have a voice, live by no one else’s by or leave, as free citizens integrated into American society. This mirrors the very things that the founding fathers were trying to establish. These principles, among others, were the basis for the US war of independence.
Shwermer and Goodman were Northern Jewish Freedom Rider activists and Cheney was their local Mississippi contact. He was an African American student leader. They were from totally different backgrounds but shared the idealism and hope of the time. Goodman, Shwener and Cheny trained together, lived together and ultimately died together sharing the belief that the basic right to vote is the cornerstone of American Democracy. They were patriots and their sacrifice heroic. What made their cause even more impressive is that they adhered to the rule of non-violence. They faced a fearful and doubtful armed group. Facing bullets with ballots and the courage of their convictions. This selfless effort ensured that all Americans could share the same franchise and they planted the seeds for our future Democracy to grow and become a more perfect union.
Today, I’m not so sure if this country still has it in her. It seems the gains women and men of all races religions and creeds fought, bled and died for are slowly withering on the vine. I wonder if today people have the same courage, compassion, hope and optimism that the Freedom Riders and other activists of that time shared. Has the courage, compassion, hope and optimism activists shared then been replaced by cold cynicism and apathy? I don’t blame folks—I can be pretty apathetic too. It just seems that no one cares about anything past the ends of their own nose nowadays. Its harder to make ends meet, you have to do more with less and if corporations are people they are a cold lot indeed, and our government doesn’t seem to function.
The poisonous political views of selfish acquisition, dangerous anti-government agendas, Lilliputian squabbles and partisan divides punctuate how far off track we have strayed from the clear vision Martin Luther King implored all Americans to work toward. Is this really the best our Democracy can muster, while basic rights of women’s health care and the very same hard-fought and won voting rights are being eroded daily? Important decisions about war and peace need to be discussed in this woefully dysfunctional climate. On this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, why are so many willing to stand by while our country is torn apart by political rancor and squabbling by a vocal few? If this is truly the legacy of fifty years ago, what an opportunity we have squandered.
President Lincoln knew that “a house divided cannot stand.” I’d bet if President Lincoln were alive today, he would have the courage and compassion to seize the moment and share a stage with his rivals. I know this because he did so at a time when the country was in the midst of civil war. He saved our Union because he, like all rational people, recognized that stalemate upon stalemate is untenable.
We can live together as brothers or die together as fools. We should—all of us in these trying times—recommit to be one nation. That would indeed be a fitting tribute to the memories of The Freedom Riders, Dr. King and the millions of unknown Americans of all walks of life, who got us this far.