Ups and Downs - Winter 2021

 

Steve Cain
Winter, 2021

 

Buckets of ink have been spilled describing the awful year we just lived through. And yes, it was awful. Who would deny it?

But what if the turmoil we have just experienced has a silver lining? What if we needed a pandemic, a George Floyd and a meltdown in Washington to see more clearly where we’ve gone wrong, and how to make things better?

I know – it’s just as possible that this tumultuous year could lead to more of the same or worse, with even more polarization and discord between Team Red and Team Blue. But a quick look at our recent history suggests that this does not necessarily have to be our fate.

Perhaps the best parallel to 2020, at least in my lifetime, was 1968. I was still pretty young then, just seven years old that April, so my memories of the year were through the eyes of a child. But I was old enough to have some inkling that important and frightening events were happening all around me.

One of my clearest memories was hearing the announcement on TV that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. When I walked into the next room to tell my parents, their shocked reaction confirmed my suspicion that this event was both very consequential and very bad. That moment will live with me for the rest of my life.

I try to remind myself in the wake of this overwhelming year that 2020 is not unique, nor is it uniquely terrible. You could even say 1968 was worse. The entire decade of the 1960s was tumultuous. President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and the country was absolutely torn apart by the Civil Right struggle and the war in Vietnam.

But, even by the standards of the decade, 1968 was unusually chaotic. The year marked a high water mark for popular discontent with the raging and highly unpopular war in Vietnam. Widespread civil disobedience and protests took place from coast to coast. The “generation gap” was at its peak and the expression, “don’t trust anyone over 30” became the mantra of the young. The year saw not one, but two, assassinations with Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. both felled within a few months of each other. The rioting that followed the assassination of MLK destroyed vast areas of cities across the county. In Chicago, these riots decimated Madison Street and parts of the West Side which, to his day, have never recovered.

And yet, despite all the turmoil, the assassinations and the destruction, American society did not fall apart. The fractures were not permanent. There was no second Civil War as many confidently predicted at the time. (Sound familiar?) Racial tensions subsided. Fitfully, the gains of the civil rights movement took hold.

Although the war in Vietnam did not end until 1975, the tide had turned by 1968 and the American retreat would soon begin. Within a decade of that terrible year, a new generation of young people no longer protested in the streets. They were too busy disco dancing or hanging out in the punk clubs. War protests and civil disobedience had become yesterday’s news.

Could 2020 portend a similar future? Could the inequities of the pandemic, the injustice of the George Floyd murder and the acrimony in Washington be a new inflection point for American society? Could 2020 be the catalyst for renewed progress in the centuries-long struggle for racial equality? There were no Black Lives Matter signs on Madison Street, let alone anywhere else in the city, after the 1968 riots. They are ubiquitous in Chicago today as they are in cities across the country. Something feels different. I cling to the hope that this can be the beginning of a new and better future.

We can never predict what the future will bring. But one thing is for certain. The events of the past year have revealed some truths that many of us, myself included, had not previously seen. What we do with this information will determine our future. It will also test MLK’s belief that the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice.

Steve Cain is Secretary of RPBG. He writes articles and compiles content for our quarterly newsletter. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of RPBG and its Members.