Shame is a spell others put on us to control us … It is a spell many of us have learned to put on ourselves – Melody Beattie
I was born a Democrat. I don’t know how it happened, and it certainly wasn’t by choice. That’s just the way it was a way back when.
Growing up in the 50s and 60s our family didn’t talk much about politics. There was an unwritten rule that polite people didn’t talk about sex, religion, or politics, and boy were we polite. The only thing I knew is that my folks always “voted Democrat” whenever there was an election, but I didn’t really know what the difference was, because we never discussed it.
In terms of temperament, I think I would have been an Eisenhower Republican. I would not have voted for Kennedy in 1960 because rumor had it he would make us kids go to school six days a week “because he was Catholic.” That was the buzz on the school-ground, and that’s all I needed to know about him.
I suspect many of us gained our political identities as much from our families of origin as from our personal temperaments. Entering high school, I became more aware of the disparity between America as we talked about it (land of the free, home of the brave) and an America that could be quite ugly at times; police dogs attacking black men and women who were asking for what? A chance to be treated as equals – in practice and not just in theory.
The 60s were a scary time in which to grow up. There was a lot of violence on our own streets, and if that wasn’t enough, there was the escalating violence taking place overseas in some place called Viet Nam. I began to learn some of the differences between the political parties, although my knowledge was still pretty thin – about as deep as the average bumper sticker. I came to perceive that Democrats tended to represent the “working class” while Republicans tended to represent small businesses and more rural interests. I don’t recall there ever being talk of Liberals and Conservatives, as each party seemed to have a ready mix of both in their ranks.
After elections, folks in Congress put aside their party labels and worked on bills that addressed the many varied needs America was facing. They may have approached those issues differently, but neither seemed to regard the other as an enemy, and neither seemed quite so ideologically set in their ways.
I remember Kennedy’s challenge for America to be first to the moon; I remember Johnson’s desire to form a Great Society; I remember Martin Luther King, Jr. addressing a humungous crowd on the Capital Mall and sharing his I Have a Dream speech. I remember the assassinations that shook America to her core: JFK, Bobby Kennedy, Malcom X, MLK, Jr. I remember tear gas; men, women, and children being beaten and chased; church bombings and burning crosses; black men dragged down streets, chained to truck bumpers.
I was born a Democrat, leaned conservative, but came to embrace those who’ve worked and fought for progressive ideals: expanding voting rights, erasing red lines and ghettos, treating people with respect regardless of race and judging folks based upon “the content of their character” (as Martin Luther King put it).
By the time you read this, we will be in the middle of Black History Month. There are some who decry the fact we even have such a thing, after all, there is no White History Month (they say). But until we re-write our history books to reflect the contributions people of color (and women) have made throughout our nation’s history, and face the honest ugliness betrayed throughout much of our past, we’ll need to take some time to learn about our brothers and sisters as they continue to struggle in ways the rest of us cannot imagine, and would never tolerate if that shoe was on our feet.