History is Not What Happened Two Hundred Years Ago; It is a Story About What Happened Two Hundred Years Ago*

Last week, a colleague shared an article that pushed me to think about how different generations view the world. I come at this question from various perspectives—as a baby boomer responsible for staff from multiple generational groups, a father of two millennials, a son of parents of the “greatest generation,” and so on.  You get the point.

Since I’m in the history business, my thinking focused on the major episodes of the past that have influenced generations I’ve known.  Both my parents grew up in the Depression and were greatly affected by the New Deal, Pearl Harbor and WWII.  My generation grew up during the expanding economic cycles of the 1950s and 60s with the rise of the middle class, but also experienced the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, not to mention Vietnam.  Two of my siblings grew up in the Reagan era, with its attacks on the New Deal and government.  For my children, their early and teenage years were shaped in part by 9/11, rising economic inequality, and the Great Recession of 2008.

Understanding how each successive generation views the world raises questions around how the stories about the past change.  That includes identifying the sight lines that we have available to see and tell those stories. One way we can grow our understanding of generational perspectives is through seeing the places where history happened.  I was not alive during Pearl Harbor, but when I was privileged to take an early morning tour of the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Hawaii one Memorial Day weekend, I began to truly grasp the enormity of the sacrifice on that December Sunday morning in 1941 and its impact on my parents’ generation.

U.S.S. Arizona in Pearl Harbor on Memorial Day Weekend

U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor

On this day when we’ve just completed our annual celebration of the life and work of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there may be those not alive in the 1960s who wonder about his true impact.  Many younger generations know King only as a symbol or a type of civic deity.  Yet there are places, when paired with his writings, which demonstrate why he is so important today. Clayborn Temple is one such place.  When King came to Memphis in 1968 to support the sanitation workers—those African American men who went out on strike and walked the streets with their now famous “I Am a Man” signs—he was reviled by much of white America. Even those moderates who said they supported his work raised issues with his tactics.  (Think of his response to white pastors in Letters from Birmingham Jail.) That trip to Memphis, of course, ended in his assassination.

Clayborn Temple

Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Steve Jones)


I Am A Man

Sanitation Workers in March 1968 outside Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Ernest C. Withers/Withers Family Trust)

Michael Eric Dyson’s book Tears We Cannot Stop:  A Sermon to White America, makes King’s status then and now abundantly clear. Dyson argues that America has “washed the grit from his rhetoric” in order to get to a place where he can be seen and admired by the country at large.  Yet it was King who said that the race problem “grows out of the . . . need that some people have to feel superior.  A need that some people have to feel . . . that their white skin ordained them to be first.”  King also said, “Our nation was born in genocide, when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race.”  Difficult words for many to hear, yet, “This is why King is so important to this generation, to this time, to this nation, to our people,” Dyson writes. “He spoke the truth that we have yet to fully acknowledge.”

Clayborn Temple Memorial

“I Am a Man” Memorial at Clayborn Temple in Memphis

King’s words are powerful, but they also grew out of a history. I’ve seen those antecedents most recently in the writings of Thomas Paine, “the incendiary voice of the American Revolution” as described by Lewis Lapham, and the first individual to write a denunciation of slavery in America. Read these words from Paine’s Rights of Man and see how they provide a prologue to King’s Poor People’s Campaign:

“When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance or distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive . . . when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government.

Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.  What we often obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”

Understanding generational perspectives on the American story requires work, just as seeking the point of view of different communities of people can be hard.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort.  Only when we open our eyes, minds, and hearts to our fellow human beings and acknowledge truths that have remained hidden—only when “one’s fellow citizens are … held in honorable regard not because they are rich or notably generous, but because they are one’s fellow citizens”—will we be able to progress towards the aspirations of America’s founding documents.

With gratefulness for the life—and continuing impact—of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Have a good week.

More to come…


*The title is adapted from a line in Lewis H. Lapham’s Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy

Pearl Harbor Day

U.S.S. Arizona in Pearl Harbor on Memorial Day Weekend

U.S.S. Arizona Memorial

A couple of years ago I wrote a post called Why We Memorialize and Remember Sacred Places on the reasoning behind my decision to cite December 7, 1941, as my top candidate deserving of the descriptor “The day the world changed forever.”

I thought it would be a good post to share again – here on Pearl Harbor Day.  Memorials are about memory, which is “an essential part of consciousness” as quoted in my colleague Tom Mayes’ series of essays on Why Do Old Places Matter?

In this day and age, we glorify the individual and forget that it is the collective – the community – that holds us together.  Places such as the U.S.S. Arizona memorial – and I would argue the Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial – are indeed “places where moments in personal history become part of the flow of collective history.”  History that transcends individual experiences and lifetimes. It is important to remember that we are judged not just by what we build, but by what we choose to save and remember from the past.

More to come…


A Revolting Development

Rutherford County CourthouseEarly last week I received an email from a colleague that said, “Hi David. I wanted you to know that I am in your hometown of Murfreesboro tonight (for a work-related dinner)…What a wonderful place!”

She’s right about the last point.  I’ve written about the wonders of growing up in Murfreesboro before on More to Come….

I suspect she had driven past the Rutherford County Courthouse all decked out for the Christmas holidays on the town square (picture at the top of the post), and I suggested she drive by 407 E. Main Street to see “the old home place.” (Photo below – our old home is the one on the right.)

Little did I know that I’d be driving by those same sites in just a few days. But life has a way of intruding on the best-laid of plans.  (So who cares if I haven’t bought the first Christmas present?)

The Old Home Place

On Thursday, my phone lit up at work as both my sister and brother called multiple times within about ten minutes and I feared something was wrong. I soon learned.  My 89-year-old father was in the hospital after suffering shortness of breath – not something you want to hear about a loved one who had a heart attack three years ago in the same week that Candice had her hip replacement.  He again had heart issues and anemia. I quickly made the call to fly to Tennessee for the weekend.

When I walked into St. Thomas Rutherford Hospital’s ICU unit, my father – surprised to see me – used a line that he told others who asked how he was doing.

“Well, this is certainly a revolting development!”

My sister Debbie posted that line on her Facebook page (the modern-day mother who keeps everyone up-to-date on the family goings-on).  Various cousins responded that their parents or aunts or uncles had used the same language. Must be a hand-me-down through the Bearden-Brown family.  I’ll think I’ll use it myself in the future.

I’m glad I was able to come for multiple reasons. First, I’ve seen Daddy improve each day.  The doctors say they will release him tomorrow and we’re making arrangements for his transition home. He did have some damage to his heart, but nothing that he can’t handle.

Secondly, my three siblings – Debbie, Carol, and Joe – were carrying the entire load of watching my father, being his advocate with the hospital, and trying to keep their own responsibilities during a very busy season. I was able to come and stay at the hospital for 12 hours on Saturday, and felt I was giving all these wonderful people a bit of a break. I don’t thank them – and my in-laws and nieces and nephews – enough for all they do for Daddy on a regular basis, much less when he has a health scare. This was a small way of saying thanks.

Then, I stayed at Dad’s house when I wasn’t at the hospital, which gave me some space to come down after hours at the hospital.  While there, Candice sent a text asking me to “look around and see if you can find something he needs for Christmas.”

New suspenders?  Nope.

Daddy's Suspenders

Books?  Well, maybe…he obviously enjoys them and he always reads what I send him. But this is just one room of books in his house.  There are others.

Daddy's Books

I think we’ll have to keep working on that question.

Most importantly, I’m glad I came because I got to be with my father.  He’s hard-of-hearing, so conversations tend to be short and loud, but this morning we pulled out our various newspapers and Daddy – the unreconstructed Southern liberal – came out.

We talked about the immigration debate after he read one of his favorite local columnistsSaritha Prabhu – in the Nashville Tennessean. He talked about how he was helping out a “working poor” family here in Murfreesboro, and we discussed the problems they are facing. When we talked about how corporations were driving so much of the agenda in America these days, he said, “I’d hate to be some of those people on the Judgment Day.”

Then we talked about my mother – the love of his life – in an unusual way.  He was reading an article called Four Rules of Business You Can’t Afford to Forget, and he said, “This is Helen.”  The rules?

  • Be on time, every time
  • Do what you say you will do
  • Finish what you start
  • Say, and mean, “Please” and “Thank You”

He said mother always pushed us to finish what we started.  She wouldn’t let us drop something if we said we were going to do it.  And she was adamant about saying “please” and “thank you.”  In fact, when Daddy turned to Debbie yesterday and said to her, “Open this packet” I said, “Has ‘please’ dropped out of  your vocabulary?” Debbie responded, “If mother was here he would certainly say ‘please’ more often!”  At age 89 perhaps you get the occasional pass, but I was reminded of my rule “don’t be a grumpy old man.”

Finally, we were able to be together on Pearl Harbor Day.

U.S.S. Arizona in Pearl Harbor on Memorial Day Weekend

When the nurse came in this morning, she couldn’t remember the date to write on the board in his room.  Daddy told her, “It is Pearl Harbor Day.” He then proceeded to tell us that he and his sister – my Aunt Mary Dixie – were at Peabody listening to a performance of Messiah. When they came out, they learned about the attack at Pearl Harbor and their lives were changed forever. Both were WWII veterans by the end of the decade.

I enjoyed sharing an article with Daddy that was in today’s New York Times as part of a series about why Giants and Jets fans should skip today’s football games (something I’ve done for the past year without missing a beat). Tom Coffey, a staff editor in the sports department, suggested that fans use the time to “remember.”  I loved his last line:

Sunday afternoon seems like a good time to think about the sacrifices made by the men and women who died that day, and to reflect upon the wisdom of a statement that originated with Marv Levy, the longtime Buffalo Bills coach, that is still uttered in the sports world, albeit far too infrequently:  No game is a must-win.  World War II was a must-win.

While I never want my father to face additional heart issues and wind up in the hospital, there is so much for which to give thanks this weekend – especially for the supportive thoughts and prayers from family and friends.

More to come…