This past summer, my family relocated from the Mississippi Gulf Coast to the CSRA. Three times I made the trip on Interstates 10, 65, 85 and 20, taking in parts of the country for the first time – then a second and third time. Each time I passed signs in Alabama to Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, the Tuskegee Heritage Museum and the Confederate Memorial Park, I thought of those who went before me.
It’s easy to take for granted the ease with which we travel between states. Not once during my triple tri-state odyssey did I have to take out papers at a checkpoint. I was not required to travel with a male escort (at 18 months, my son probably wouldn’t qualify). This is not the case today in other countries. This was not the case 50 years ago if I was anything but a white male. This would not be the case if, 150 years ago, the Union had not been preserved.
DURING THIS YEAR’S commemorations of converging anniversaries – the Civil War sesquicentennial of 1863 and the Civil Rights Movement’s watershed moments of 1963 – it is important to recognize that the turning points of these tumultuous years were not inevitabilities. We take them for granted because this is the history we inherited. Things could’ve gone either way were it not for vital agents of change at the right place and the right time, working tirelessly and in unison for a more perfect union.
Turning points 150 years ago:
• Going into Gettysburg, Pa., Robert E. Lee had the upper hand. Federal troops had a major change in command two days before battle. They were beaten back the first day but would triumph in the end. This victory, plus Ulysses S. Grant’s simultaneous success in Vicksburg, Miss., changed the course of the war.
• In November, 11 months after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln would consecrate those who died at Gettysburg and redirect the purpose of the Civil War to incorporate “a new birth of freedom.” This tipping point, oiled with blood on the battlefield, changed our country’s destiny. It wouldn’t have happened without the preceding decade of an evolving social conscience and those who chose to follow their moral compass over state’s sovereignty and commerce.
Turning points, 50 years ago:
• John F. Kennedy addressed the nation, explaining his reasoning for sending the National Guard to protect two newly enrolled students at the University of Alabama, tipping the argument for civil rights from a legal issue to a moral issue for the first time at the federal level. We don’t always hear about the white students on the inside of the school who applauded James Hood and Vivian Malone once they made it past the governor, the state troopers and the angry mob on the outside. Students on the inside were “rolling tide” into the future.
• Two months later, the nationally televised march and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech would touch hearts and minds of all colors and creeds, advancing many Americans’ perception on race and equality – an effort 10 years in the making with activists across the country.
SEPT. 15 WAS THE 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, which took the lives of Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; Cynthia Wesley, 14; and Addie Mae Collins, 14. These young ladies – like so many other young people around the world caught in crossfire they neither deserved nor instigated – stir something deep within us. We all are a little bit diminished and emboldened when blood of the innocent calls us into action.
While we are wired to presume that right conquers might, we know political and personal realities are far more complicated. This does not mean we abandon the dream of a free and just society. It simply means we recalibrate our expectations so that we are prepared to put forth the necessary effort, time and sacrifice to cut through entrenched norms and special interests, if we truly desire to achieve something meaningful. “We’re not on a journey to save the world, but to save ourselves,” according to writer and lecturer Joseph Campbell. “But in doing that you save the world.”
We learn from our past; we evolve to meet the demands of our present; we instill the values of being informed and educated into our children; we celebrate our differences; we rally for the underdog; and we go on road trips. What better way to connect with the land of the free and the home of the brave? That’s patriotism.
(Marlena Bergeron, M.Ed., is a writer, educator and recent transplant to the Augusta area.)