Editor’s Note: ”Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” is a 1967 book by African-American minister, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and social justice campaigner Martin Luther King Jr.
It is not lost on this writer that this Community Voices column is being written January of 2021. January is the month we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. The words come after an eventful and historic first week of 2021 in which the historical significance can hardly be over amplified. Tuesday, Jan. 5, citizens of Georgia voted to have the first-ever Black person elected to the US Senate from the State of Georgia. Rev Raphael Warnock is a pastor from the same Atlanta church where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. In addition, Georgia elected Jon Ossoff, who becomes the state’s first Jewish senator and at 33, the Senate’s youngest member.
The day after the Georgia election, Wednesday, Jan. 6, the United States Congress gathered at the US Capitol to certify the results of the 2020 Presidential Election as mandated by the United States Constitution. That very same afternoon, a little after 1 p.m., a protest of the election results turned into an insurrection breaching the home of US democracy for the first time since the British army set it on fire in 1814. The Confederate flag was carried in, rioters wore t-shirts supporting Auschwitz, some identified with radical conspiracy theory groups, or a political party. Many were injured and five individuals lost their lives including a police officer defending the US Capitol.
The impact was felt around the world. The shock, sadness, and anger will not easily be forgotten. The day will live on as a tragedy and a triumph forever. Congress returned that same evening committed to upholding the United States Constitution, saving our democracy, and demonstrating to the world that our grand experiment of self-governance did not crash with the falling glass of the day’s insurrection.
Many have likely wondered has it ever been this bad and will we truly recover from years of divisiveness that culminated in a violent rampage? The answer is most definitively yes. I have unwavering faith in the pillars of our democracy created by the Founding Fathers of the United States. While our country is shaken, we will recover stronger than before.
Humans have historically and unequivocally chosen to overcome that which would irreparably divide and destroy our civilization. History always has something to say about the present.
In January of 1861, after President Lincoln was elected, southern states seceded and the country went on to a civil war. Lincoln was tragically assassinated. The country survived.
In 1932-33, in the grips of the Great Depression, then candidate FDR, stated the biggest threats to democracy were Huey Long from the left and Douglas MacArthur, Army Chief of Staff from the right. Either group FDR believed could lead a populous coup overturning our democracy. There were fascist forces in the country. A group of Wall Street bankers tried to bribe Marine General Butler to come to Washington, summon and arm the American Legion, and dispose of FDR as he was seen as a socialistic dictator. FDR feared it all might fall before he took the Oath of Office. The time was compared to the Dark Ages which lasted 400 years. Bold action was required to save the country. We had to reach out to our neighbors. Then, we went on to World War II. The country survived.
The evening of Saturday, April 6, 1968, after giving his historical speech to striking union sanitation employees, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of a Memphis hotel. Wednesday, June 5, 1968, shortly after midnight, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Californian hotel, after accepting the Democratic Party of California’s Primary win. The country was mired in the Vietnam War. Racial unrest was ongoing. Rep. John Lewis, historical racial justice and civil rights icon, believed there might not be any way forward for our nation.
This is a small summary and other defining moments of our country should be revisited and a column does not do the history justice in any way, shape, or form. We can see the emerging themes, though. I encourage everyone to go back and look at the most difficult times our country has overcome, not the least of these, The Revolutionary War. Deep suffering, pain, courage, and triumph are embedded in our history. There are exceptional moments we can look back on to seek guidance, hope, and inspiration. We have, in fact, been here before and it has been this bad.
Civilization is a societal contract. We have bled and died for democracy and a more perfect union. This often required us to overcome our basic instincts. At the end of the day, do we reach out or clench a fist? We can re-imagine our institutions so they promote and honor racial and economic equity and common good. We can choose community over chaos. We can focus on our shared values. We can be accountable to each other instead of individual ambitions. We can seek a vision of community that values and embraces what we do together more than what we do alone. It is a choice we must make daily. We have the ability to unite and to have respectful discourse in areas where compromise demands it. We can condemn violence, have justice, and heal. We can love our neighbor.
We all shoulder the responsibility to be the change we wish for. Some groups that I have joined include: Leader Ethics Wisconsin and Common Ground Committee. They are non-partisan groups that believe in leadership and problem-solving with transparency, integrity, respect, and hope. It is my hope that many will join me in engaging with community organizations and activities that lift us up and divide us less.