There are a myriad of tributaries through time that twist together as if one, but each offers a distinct experience that depends upon many factors, such as one’s age, race and gender. The summer of 1967 is a good example. Anyone steeped in pop-culture history, and even some who aren’t, likely know it as the Summer of Love, when Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released and the Monterey Pop Festival took place (though, technically, Pepper and the festival both fell in the spring). People in another tributary, however, remember or know those same months as the “long, hot summer” when riots erupted in such urban centers as Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Newark, N.J.
Just days after the Detroit riot, which followed the one in Newark, N.J., President Johnson spoke to the nation about the unrest. He emphasized the need to stop the lawlessness, but also addressed the underlying issues that fed it:
“The violence must be stopped, quickly, finally, and permanently. It would compound the tragedy, however, if we should settle for order that is imposed by the muzzle of a gun. In America, we seek more than the uneasy calm of martial law. We seek peace that is based on one man’s respect for another man – and upon mutual respect for law. We seek a public order that is built on steady progress in meeting the needs of all of our people. Not even the sternest police action, nor the most effective federal troops, can ever create lasting peace in our cities. The only genuine, long-range solution for what has happened lies in an attack – mounted at every level – upon the conditions that breed despair and violence. All of us know what those conditions are: ignorance, discrimination, slums, poverty, disease, not enough jobs. We should attack these conditions – not because we are frightened by conflict, but because we are fired by conscience. We should attack them because there is simply no other way to achieve a decent and orderly society in America.”
LBJ’s flawed presidency was derailed the following year, of course, by events in one of that era’s other tributaries, the Vietnam War. Although promises made by one president are often broken by the next, in the decades since we’ve seemed headed in the right direction – despite stumbles, of which they’ve been too many. (As Martin Luther King Jr. said, paraphrasing the abolitionist minister Thomas Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”)
As 2019 faded to a close, I often referred to 2020 as “the year of visual acuity.” I assumed that we, as a people, would visit a figurative ophthalmologist and leave with new specs that granted us better vision – not just of the present, but of the past. As the philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
American is burning. Again. Let us respond to it, now, and prevent it from happening again. And again. And again.