August 29, 2013

Marches and Dreams: My Generation and Yours

As a participant in the 1963 "I Have a Dream" March, I've followed with interest the recent commentary comparing then with now. I was especially struck by Dana Milbank's op-ed piece in the Washington Post. Here's part of what he had to say:
There have been many noble causes in my time -- the fight against apartheid, for gay rights, and for environmentalism -- but nothing captured my generation or required the sort of sacrifice the civil rights movement did. 
John McCain, in his campaigns for the presidency, spoke of "a cause greater than self-interest." . . . .  
But what about those born after 1955, who turned 18 after the Vietnam War draft had been suspended? For the first time in decades -- perhaps for the first time in history -- Americans came of age without an existential threat to the nation and without massive social upheaval at home.
"The Weakest Generation"?
I was with Milbank until his last paragraph:
Tom Brokaw justifiably called the cohort that survived the Great Depression and fought the World War II the greatest generation. I'm afraid that my generation will someday be called the weakest.
I think that designation is a bit unfair. I'd suggest "The Unlucky Generation," because it hasn't been challenged and tested by truly inspiring causes and leaders.

The Lucky Generation
That label stands in contrast to the one I've used to describe my own age bracket -- The Lucky Generation, those of us  born between 1926 and 1945. We didn't have to make the sacrifices the Greatest Generation did during World War II, and we were old enough to participate in the postwar economic boom. We were also the beneficiaries of the economic support system established by New Deal and Fair Deal legislation, and of employment-based benefits negotiated by organized labor.

With the spotlight on the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, I'm reminded that we were also fortunate to have "causes greater than self-interest," like the civil rights movement and later the anti-Vietnam War protests. I turned 30 in 1959, and the next decade was filled with marches, protests and rallies for various important causes.

It's not that we lack challenges today. We're dealing with the growing gap between rich and poor, global warming, and infrastructure deterioration. But these issues don't carry the intense emotional charge we felt after the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X . . . or the murder of young school girls in a church bombing . . . or the shooting deaths at Kent State . . . or the napalm burning of a naked Vietnamese girl.

Spurred on by those intense feelings, we also felt real hope for change. The civil rights protests (along with the assassination of JFK and the political skills of LBJ) produced the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. The momentum continued; we saw Nixon's work on school desegregation and the adoption of the Philadelphia Plan, our first significant federal affirmative action program. Today, we can't really hope for corrective action from this Congress.

It was an exhilarating time -- the '60s -- to live in Washington and be involved in "causes greater than self-interest." It's sad to see how that "hope for change" has faded in the past decade.

Remembering An Even Earlier America
I'm reminded of an event from a much different USA. In 1989, DC's Arena Stage mounted a revival of On the Town, the 1944 musical by Leonard Bernstein about three sailors on 24-hour shore leave in "New York, New York." The show began with the orchestra playing "The Star Spangled Banner," and the audience stood and sang. I had trouble holding back tears as I recalled going to movies during WWII as a kid in Ithaca, NY. Every movie began that same way -- with the entire audience standing and singing our national anthem. The American people were fully united behind a cause. 

That feeling came back after 9/11 . . . but only briefly.

No comments: