The wave of tragic and troubling events of recent days in our country has brought me back to another tumultuous time: the spring and summer of 1968.
I remember it well because I was a college senior about to graduate. I remember the night of April 5 when Julie and I had planned to go into Chicago for an event. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated the day before in Memphis, and that night, Chicago seethed and exploded: a 28-block stretch of Madison Street was left largely in ruins; 36 major fires were reported; 11 people were killed; 48 were wounded by police gunfire and 90 policemen were injured. In two days 2,150 people were arrested. Thousands of Army troops were sent in to restore order.
The summer before I had worked with teenagers in the Cabrini-Green Homes on Chicago’s Near North Side. I lived in a largely African-American church community. I felt comfortable joining pick-up games on the asphalt basketball courts and visiting families in these high-rise apartments. After the spring of 1968, gunfire became commonplace from the upper floors of Cabrini-Green, and deep racial tensions made my normal kind of coming and going impossible.
On the Wednesday before graduation, June 5, 1968, I awoke to learn that Bobby Kennedy had just been shot in Los Angeles after winning the California Democratic Primary. I can remember a deep sense that our nation seemed to be splitting apart — a fear that seemed to be coming true when the Democratic National Convention met later that summer in Chicago and spiraled into chaos. Ten thousand demonstrators gathered outside and were met by 23,000 police and National Guard members. These violent clashes were broadcast live to the nation.
The current moment in America reminds me of 1968: the heightened racial tension, repeated incidents of violence, denunciations and defense of police — all against the backdrop of an overheated political season. Then, many young people felt alienated from the system and found little hope in either candidate of the major parties.
In such troubled times, what are we to think? How are we to act? I have no grand answers to our deep problems as a nation and as a society. The fact is there are no easy answers. But what can we do here, as a Wake Forest community? What can I do? Here is what I am committing myself to, as best I can:
1. Acknowledge hard truths. The dilemmas of race continue to plague our society. Racial disparity and racial conflict are serious problems that we must not ignore. Instead, we must rededicate ourselves to the unfinished work before us: shaping a society in which everyone, created as equals, receives treatment as such.
2. Listen and learn. I am convinced that party lines and pat answers are not sufficient to address such troublesome times. We must listen to voices other than accustomed ones. We must be open to adjusting our thinking and our behavior. We must push ourselves beyond what is comfortable, broadening our network of friends and deepening our capacity for empathy. How long has it been since we have, even imaginatively, seen the world through the eyes of someone very different than ourselves?
3. Start a conversation. A place like Wake Forest must foster honest, face-to-face conversation, however difficult, in the classroom, in residence halls, and in structured and unstructured occasions. Do the hard work of dialogue with those with whom we disagree.
4. Retain hope. The United States has a wonderful — and deeply flawed — history. As the historian Edmund Morgan has emphasized, we were a nation founded both in liberty and in slavery. Whatever progress has been made in race relations and attitudes, racism is still a troubling reality. Today, we must redouble our efforts in the noble quest for which so many have given their lives: to build a society where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness remain within the grasp of everyone.
In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. implored those who would listen. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that,” he said. “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” As we walk through what feels like another dark hour, let us be people who carry the light and let us be people who choose to love.