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Essay: American History’s Crooked Path Needs Clear Vision to Guide It

  • Using two Leicas and a Nikon, Paul Fusco shot nearly 1,000 slides from the train that transported Bobby Kennedy’s body to Washington, D.C. MUST CREDIT: Paul Fusco-Magnum Photos

  • A photo from the exhibit shows people saluting the passing train. MUST CREDIT: Paul Fusco-Magnum Photos



Valley News Correspondent
Friday, June 08, 2018

Nostalgia for the way we imagine life used to be can be a cheap and dangerous indulgence, one rooted in sentimentality and myth rather than fact.

In the case of the events surrounding the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, I feel, not nostalgia, but a deep melancholy about what we lost as a country.

I don’t mean nostalgia only for Kennedy, about whom it is possible to acknowledge that he was, early in his career, a man who made politically expedient alliances with Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover, but that he was also, in the last years of his life, a supple thinker and orator on the urgent subjects of the day, which included the Vietnam War, race relations and poverty.

Go back and listen to his extemporaneous speech in Indianapolis the night th Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was killed, when he sought to calm a distraught crowd; or his speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after he won the California primary, moments before he was shot, when he spoke of trying to knit together the country’s divisions.

I have been moved this week by the images of Kennedy’s funeral train from New York to Washington, D.C. and by the photographs and film footage of the hundreds of Americans who lined the tracks, saluting, waving, holding up the flag or signs that said, “Good bye, Bobby.” Of course there were those with a visceral dislike of the Kennedys, but what I see in these pictures is a sense of a national sorrow and unity that seems elusive now.

Kennedy’s assassination, of course, followed just a few months after the murder of King in Memphis. I’m not sure, really, the country ever fully recovered from those twin injuries to the body politic. Superficially, yes, but the scar tissue is still there, because the issues of race, poverty and inequality that MLK and RFK addressed are still present.

Counter-history has its own perils. It’s tempting to play the What If game. What direction might the country have taken had both men lived and aged? That’s impossible to say. And they were human, not saintly, although posterity tends to elide the contradictions and burnish the virtues.

But the women and men we recognize as having made significant contributions toward American politics and jurisprudence have been great, not despite their flaws, but because they struggled to master them. Perhaps they saw in their own frailties and failures the nation mirrored back to them, and realized they could do better. Great leaders anticipate and point out the direction in which a nation can move toward a more optimistic future, even when its citizens haven’t yet. They recognize the turning points in the life of a nation or people and they seize them, for the better.

I don’t want to be naive. People tend to operate in their own self-interest. Sometimes self-interest coincides with doing what is morally courageous. But sometimes leaders exhort us to imagine an America that lives up to its ideals because of a larger, nobler spirit that is in keeping with the ideals and the pragmatism of the Constitution. America is an ongoing experiment.

When I compare the rhetoric, demeanor and sagacity of the likes of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, LBJ, Barbara Jordan, John Lewis, Margaret Chase Smith, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, William F. Buckley, Daniel Inouye and Dwight Eisenhower to both the Trump administration and the lion’s share of politicians now serving in Congress, it’s hard not to conclude that something essential has gone out of American political life at the national level: a tone of maturity, generosity and reflection, a willingness to admit defeat and failure but a promise to try again, not rising to the all-too-easy bait of us vs. them.

It will be hard to get it back, particularly because social media and the news cycle have led to such fractured, kaleidoscopic perceptions and ideologies that Americans can’t even agree on what reality is.

These women and men had foibles, because everyone does. But it was possible to believe that they were not generally venal, petty, irredeemably coarse or simply mediocre. They might behave that way privately, as we’ve learned from listening to released presidential recordings, and on occasion publicly, but on the whole they recognized what it meant to be a public servant and worked to tamp down the unruliest, ugliest imps of American political and cultural life, not reanimate them.

We have made significant strides toward a more equal society in the past 50 years. We elected an African-American president, an act of tremendous consequence, although we still have not elected a woman to that office. We loosened our legal and societal restrictions on who we can love and marry. Each year we elect a greater percentage of public servants who, in their ethnicity, gender, race or sexual orientation, bear a closer resemblance to the American population at large.

But the conditions of racism and inequality, and their insidious allies, gnawing pessimism and resentment, exist in as much measure now as they did in 1968. The ways in which they persist, or have worsened, may appear cosmetically different, but they’re there. Drive along any back road, through any struggling mill town or the outskirts of any New England city and you’ll see the abundant evidence.

A month ago, I wrote a story about Derrick Oxford, an African-American Revolutionary War soldier from Plainfield who, thanks to dedicated people in town, finally received the gravestone marker he deserved. He had been a slave for much of his life, but it’s unknown whether he died as a free person.

In the story, I tried to tease out some of the contradictions of slavery in New England, but I also failed to clarify the extent to which slavery lingered in New England right up to the Civil War, even though the region, like the Upper Midwest, was a bastion of the abolitionist movement, and had taken legal steps to gradually abolish the slave trade and slavery.

Northerners prefer to think, or haven’t been taught otherwise, that the South was the sole center of a brutal system, ignoring the fact that, for example, the northern mill economy relied on the production of southern cotton. The American economy owed its underpinnings in no small part to slave labor, both of Africans and American Indians.

In her 2016 book New England Bound, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, historian Wendy Warren writes of New England slave owners who considered themselves enlightened because when they passed on slaves to their families they did so with the admonition that they should be treated well.

Slavery expanded in New England and other regions not because all slave owners were, writes Warren, “self-styled sadists” but because people told themselves that owning and trading humans was legal and morally permissible when you treated them with what you thought was relative decency.

“And so it was that common people owned slaves and that the settling of their estates and the assessing of their property worked slavery into the legal regimes of the New England colonies more thoroughly than did any deliberative discussion of the institution,” Warren notes.

Why is it important to keep banging away at a subject, as did King and Kennedy, that many of us would prefer not to revisit, or think has already been settled? Why keep reopening a wound that many would argue never closed over in the first place?

One might as well ask why the German government mandated a national curriculum on the causes and effects of the Holocaust. Why did South Africa establish a truth and reconciliation commission on the system of apartheid? Why did Rwanda set up commissions to examine the subject of who was culpable, and why, for the 1994 genocide? Because it’s critical to understand the historical record and follow the evidence in full.

There are other examples of countries and governments reluctant to address great crimes in their pasts. The Turkish government still does not recognize that there was a deliberate mass murder of Armenians in 1915. There is ongoing debate in Japan about whether its military committed atrocities during World War II. Many Russians are nostalgic for Stalin. Those societies are poorer for those evasions, just as we are when we try to push aside the history of slavery and conquest.

Imperfect as it is, the United States was founded on powerful principles to which many peoples across the world still aspire. There are, though, some wounds so profound and deep that only a sincere, national interrogation and introspection can suffice. (A dictionary definition of “wound” calls it an “injury to living tissue,” which strikes me as just the right analogy.) Unless we tirelessly investigate the roots of American racism and inequities, without fear or favor of what we find, there will never be a satisfactory reckoning or a way forward to action.

I called this week a man named James DeWolf Perry, who traces his ancestry to the 19th-century naval heroes Oliver Hazard Perry and Matthew Perry, and also to a man named James DeWolf. Perry had read my story about Derrick Oxford but commented that it had left out the full scope of slavery in New England.

Family lore had it that DeWolf was a wealthy merchant, which he was, Perry said in a phone interview from Boston. But it was how DeWolf made his money that a younger generation of Perrys and DeWolfs set out to unearth in the late 1990s, a tortuous, difficult process that sharply divided branches of the families, Perry said.

A documentary film about the journey, Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, which went back into the family tree to show how the first James DeWolf was the leading slave trader in New England, was shown in 2008 at the Sundance Festival in Utah and on PBS. Perry himself is executive director of the Center for Reconciliation in Providence, R.I., which works to bring these issues into the schools.

Within the family, there was enormous resistance to the project, Perry said. Relatives said it was the wrong thing to do, that it would expose them to public shame, that it was so long ago, that it would endanger their livelihoods or expose them to physical harm. The walls that went up (or didn’t come down) were similar to the national tendency to rewrite, ignore, vacillate or excuse, Perry said.

“Most people want to think this isn’t about them,” Perry observed, whether that’s white southerners who say slavery happened only on the plantations of wealthy landowners, or white northerners who say it didn’t exist here.

I, too, occasionally tire of reading columns by white liberals, if all they can offer is more “conversation,” “dialogue,” hand-wringing and finger-wagging, without actually proposing solutions. There are endless variations on that theme. So perhaps this column is just more of the same.

But there are concrete actions one can take to address societal inequities, whether that is giving money to, or volunteering for, organizations that support social justice causes, feeding people in your town or acting as a mentor to someone in need. Voting is an obvious privilege that too many Americans shirk. The act of listening while reserving judgment is a beginning, difficult though it may be.

Kennedy’s later speeches have that quality. He was wrestling with his conscience and, by extension, the national conscience. He sought to measure the greater good and to appeal to Americans to recall the things that bind us together, without indulging in sanctimony or finger-pointing or “I know better than you.” Righteousness, yes; self-righteousness, no. Passion, yes; raw anger, no.

On that night in Indianapolis, Kennedy said to the shocked audience, “We will have difficult times; we’ve had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.

“But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.

“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”

Let us hope that in the next few years politicians and public servants take up that challenge and also that we rise to meet them.

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.