It’s hard to describe my feelings. The great founding documents of our country seemed like they’d always be with us. When we participated in the Civil Rights Movement we thought were working for a better America. We never believed it could all disappear. We were brought up reciting the Gettysburg Address. We knew parts of the Declaration of Independence by heart. Some of us knew deals with the devil of slavery underlay the creation of the Constitution but also knew it had given us a platform to make a better world for everyone. We took it all for granted. Until the White House tenant threatened to take it all away.
I was born in New York City. Before I was four years old I knew this country was fighting with everything at its disposal to defeat Hitler and his Nazi butchers, who were exterminating Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gays, Poles, Slavic peoples, political opponents, people with disabilities and those Hitler called “useless eaters” in concentration camps. I felt safe in Brooklyn, and proud. I remember telling myself I lived in the greatest city in the greatest country in the world. How great is that. Kids are naïve but I believed in and loved this country. I thought I knew what it stood for and what it stood for was great, admirable, and indeed the world admired us for it.
Our country’s Founders understood that people in a democratic republic must learn to share and care about each other. John Dickinson signed our Constitution, paid a fine to free slaves and wrote, “By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall!” In 1782, Congress approved our national motto, e pluribus unum, out of many one, for the Great Seal of the United States.
This country opened its arms to Christians, Jews and Muslims. Universities, founded on sectarian lines, gradually widened their welcome. The Founders repeatedly described the need for immigration. The public school movement intentionally brought rich and poor together. The 19th century Army, recruited on ethnic and linguistic lines, needed an integrated fighting force. Teddy Roosevelt told us that “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.” By the end of the 2nd World War the Army played a large part in breaking down ethnic and religious barriers among us. Soldiers formed friendships with men all over the country, introduced each other to their families, often to future brides.
Corporations broke down barriers among employees so they could work together. Integration preceded Brown by centuries – race was just the latest barrier to break down. It was breaking down before World War II, when African-American stars like Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson were wildly popular with national audiences on stage, screen, radio and opera. The world was changing before Jackie Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field. National polls revealed that the public supported Brown. Martin Luther King would say, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
It’s pretty personal for me. I married a North Carolina girl, whose ancestry traces to the British isles, and always felt welcomed by her family.
So when Trump encourages people who celebrate Hitler and display their guns to scare and intimidate public officials, suggests they use their Second Amendment rights to lock up candidates, that there are good people among those who spawn hate crimes, and threatens not to accept the election results, he cuts the very guts out of the country I love. I don’t know how to express how sad, depressed and anxious I feel. Alan Paton wrote a book about South Africa he called Cry the Beloved Country. I stop myself from crying while there is still a chance to save it.
— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on October 27, 2020.