The lunch discussion centered on the current question that is in vogue everywhere these days: Has the country ever been as divided as it is today?
“You have seen it split as much or more before,“ a younger friend suggested. “You were around when they were still lynching people.”
That’s true, which both ages me and leaves some terrible scars in my memory.
And I am still around to hear U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, of my home state of Mississippi, say this after being praised by a supporter:
“If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
Surely, she was joking about a legal hanging, which, of course, hasn’t been legal in the state since 1940.
In December, Hyde-Smith faces a runoff against an African American, Mike Espy, former congressman and agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration.
That time span, childhood to now, offers a view of other periods when we were a nation divided. The Civil War, obviously, stands alone in this category, but that was indeed, before my time.
But what about the civil rights battle in the 1950s and ’60s, which was truly ignited when a brave African American woman named Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama bus? And a young eloquent preacher named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. appeared in the pulpit.
There was no neutral ground in that clash and violence was rampant. The names of the martyrs live on in history: Dr. King, James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Medgar Evers, and so many more.
President Lyndon Johnson completed what President John Kennedy had started and signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. But they didn’t drain racism from the veins of the country, and the division widened with the Vietnam War.
Young people filled the streets. National Guardsmen killed four students on the campus of Kent State in Ohio, nine more were injured; 11 days later two students were killed on the campus of Jackson State College in Mississippi.
Then came 1968: Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis and Sen. Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles, a year later, the four days of rage in Chicago.
The nation’s fabric appeared to be torn beyond repair. But it wasn’t.
Following the furiously debated presidential election in 2000, which was decided in the Supreme Court, we witnessed what happened after Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked our country.
People came together, united by tragedy.
Now, the rupture has returned, led by too many leaders who forget that words matter, especially when they are mired deeply in the pools of the discord and distrust that exists today, and when they are given widespread exposure on the mountain of social media outlets available.
Is it worse than the divisions of the last century? If so, how can it be erased?
Perhaps what is missing is Franklin Roosevelt reminding us that all we have to fear is fear itself, Harry Truman telling us where the buck stops, Dwight Eisenhower acting decisively when the Little Rock schools were integrated, John Kennedy assuring us during the Cuban missile crisis, Gerald Ford restoring a sense of honor to the Oval Office, Jimmy Carter orchestrating the Camp David Accords, Ronald Reagan inspiring us about the city on the hill, Bill Clinton touching our hearts after the Oklahoma City bombing, George W. Bush calming us as he stood on the rubble at Ground Zero, and Barack Obama leading us in Amazing Grace in a South Carolina church.
Or perhaps what is missing is the lesson embedded in the story of a doctor and a nurse, both Jews, one the son of a rabbi, who cared for the Pittsburgh shooter when he was rolled into the emergency room, cared for him because it was the right thing to do, duty over differences, humanity over hate.
Or perhaps we should just say no to anyone who would squeeze hope from our souls.
Gregory Favre, the former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee and retired vice president of news for the McClatchy Company, is a CALmatters board member, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.