Wednesday, May 03, 2006

So, you think you're a REAL American? What happened on May 4, 1961?

If you answered, "the beginning of the Freedom Rides," congratulations. If you weren't even born yet, give yourself extra points.

This is my "greatest generation." There were famous names and faces of the civil rights movement; yet for every name or face you know, untold thousands of ordinary Americans stepped up to the challenege of bringing democracy to the tens of millions of Americans who had yet to experience it.

They were students and retirees; June Cleaver houswives who risked everything from their position and standing in their families and communities to their lives.

These citizen soldiers, dedicated to the principles of
non-violence, went to the Deep South to teach men and women how to register to vote under a system that was pointedly and deliberately constructed to prevent them from participation in democracy. They had to convince a populace who had ample proof that it couldn't be done and that it wasn't so, that they, too, were a part of America.

Their faith in America, their conviction in the democratic system, that as yet had failed to live up to its potential and full promise, was either foolhardy or visionary.

They carried the highest ideals of democracy to cities and hamlets so small they were found on no map. They investigated and documented and pledged to bring to justice those enemies of liberty and freedom and ensure that the truth behind America's failure to fulfill that promise would be recorded for future generations.


On Monday afternoon, I stood on the spot where American soldiers had beaten innocent civilians during the Zoot Suit Riots of World War II. This time, however, there were young families and students, peace activists and war veterans, professionals and laborers, filling the street as far as the eye could see.

I saw an African-American grandmother walking silently hand in hand with her granddaughter, with smiles on their faces. I knew that woman could remember when.

There was no enmity between generations. People of all ethnicities and nationalities were walking in harmony. Families were experiencing true togetherness.

It was one of those all-too-brief instances when I could see the whole of humanity together as one.

And it felt good.

I'm one of those odd sorts that remembers with a chill when I visited Fort McHenry and Independence Hall and Plymouth Rock and the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I Have A Dream" speech.

And I remember the courthouse in St. Louis where human beings were sold like cattle. The desert wind bearing silent witness at Manzanar. One wintry morning on the Capitol Mall when I gazed up at the dome atop our nation's Capitol Building and recalled that it was slaves that built it.

The masses making their way through the streets of Los Angeles on Monday were commited that the purpose for which so many made the ultimate sacrifice with their own blood would be a reality and assured and safe-guarded.

At West Hollywood's annual Russian festival a few years back, the only word of the Russian-speaking announcer that I could understand was when he reverently enumciated, "America."

The word that means the same in every language on Earth. America.

You rarely --if ever-- have a word that you hear every day suddenly take on an entirely new dimension.


The evening news didn't tell you so, and at times even tried to dissuade us and convince us that it was a foolish, unneccesary waste of time, but that's what I could see on Monday afternoon.

When a crack addict chases after that perfect high that he thinks he remembers, yet never forgets? As Monday, May 1, recedes from the nation's consciousness, that's what I want to hang on to.

Somewhere in Heaven, I think Fanny Lou Hamer and Dr. King and all those who gave their lives in the struggle are smiling.

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