Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Musings On Fiftieth Anniversaries

In what may go down as the most action-packed news week of 2013, the country was witness to the gutting of the historic Civil Rights Act by the United States Supreme Court, the heroic filibuster by Wendy Davis of a restrictive abortion bill in the Texas legislature that led to its defeat, the country wondered where in the world the man is who leaked classified material that revealed a domestic spying program, likely decisions on the constitutionality of DOMA and marriage equality, and what looks to be the passage of immigration reform in the United States Senate.

As I think about the implications of all of these events, it is not lost on me the date on which today's immigration reform vote falls. Fifty years ago President Kennedy stood at the Brandenburg Gate and delivered a speech primarily on the relationship between the East and West with the backdrop of the oppressive Berlin Wall. By announcing that all free men were citizens of Berlin, Kennedy challenged the very heart of Cold War policy that erected a wall in the German city and decried any form of government that would do such a thing. Fifty years later and his country is about to vote on legislation that would further strengthen the wall to our southern border, preventing those who wish to make a new life here from entering. Not only do we have a fence separating our soil from that of our neighbor, we are essentially voting to fortify that fence not just in physical structure itself, but in the existence of 20,000 to 40,000 border patrol agents over the next decade. The irony of this is palpable.

The month of June, in fact just under twenty-four hours from June 11th to the 12th in 1963, saw the troubled, segregationist stand of Governor George Wallace at the University of Alabama, a speech committing himself and his administration to civil rights by Kennedy and the assassination of Medgar Evers. This is not an insignificant anniversary, either. Considering the Court's ruling against Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and what could have been the final nail in the coffin of affirmative action, these issues are not behind us. Meanwhile, a man goes on trial in Florida for killing a young black teen who posed no threat to him, but happened to look as if he might be trouble. Fifty years ago, men like Medgar Evers, Kennedy and John Lewis certainly could sense change coming. But as Congressman Lewis noted yesterday in his reaction to the Voting Rights Act ruling, he never thought he'd live to see the day when any branch of our government determined that historic legislation no longer necessary or constitutional.

As the world awaits a sighting of Edward J. Snowden, the now infamous leaker of classified material that revealed a domestic spy program carried out by the NSA, we are reminded of the risks once taken to release the Pentagon Papers. That "leaker" is now heralded as a hero. He is as much a reason for the end to the Vietnam War as any single individual in the country. That leak may have happened in the time period officially known as the Cold War, but we know from the last few days that we are experiencing a diplomatic chill today that is similar. We are seeing those old Cold War sentiments and fears surface between what were once the world's two superpowers. We feel that icy chill from China, Ecuador and Cuba. The difference between now and Kennedy's day? We are not "eyeball to eyeball" with the threat of nuclear retaliation. The Soviet Union crumbled, the Berlin Wall fell, our nuclear arsenals are shrinking and President Obama is calling for additional disarmament, but underneath all that progress lies the expanse between words and actions.

Today the Senate will vote on the most progressive bill on immigration policy in decades, though imperfect. Today the Supreme Court will rule on cases that may have finally caught up to public opinion. Edward Snowden will either surface or he won't. Wendy Davis will be a hero to many, particularly women in this country who value their right to make their own reproductive health decisions. And another anniversary of something historic that a young, Catholic president did fifty years ago will pass. In some ways, we are lightyears ahead of where we were that June day in Berlin when all eyes were on President Kennedy. In others, in the words of the great Aaron Sorkin, "we are absolutely nowhere."

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