Fifty years ago, I was a disappointed and hostile young man.
Like many of my companions, I had watched a Civil Rights movement grind through more than a decade to culminate in violence after the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King, a lifetime advocate of non-violent activism. Here in Kansas City, four people died in the violence of spring 1968.
Additionally, our country was torn by the Vietnam War that engulfed my generation because we were called to serve as we puzzled over a government that would foment a ruthless effort, for little understood reason, in a faraway land. Violence ensued and touched the Kansas City area, as protests were mounted and firebombs ignited on many college campuses, including at the union at the University of Kansas in 1970.
Now we view our country as one that is stuck in a division between parties, if not among tribes of interests, loyalties and hatreds. We are a “divided country,” as The Economist recently pointed out in a cover story. We are a country where during recent Independence Day celebrations many politicians refused to meet with constituents or to walk in parades. Rather, they kept out of the public eye for fear of protest from those they represent.
But the size, the scope, the violence of 50 years ago is yet to be matched — and hopefully will not be — in this toxic climate.
Fifty years ago, citizens were disillusioned and distrustful of government and its ability to address the problems of the day. Fifty years ago, the problems included a perceived unjust, needless war in addition to a grievously treated population of black Americans who had never been able to access the keys to economic prosperity or political and social equality. And although efforts to address these ills were belittled and impugned, protesters persisted. Change came and order re-established.
Fifty years later, we are again in a divisive social and political environment fomented by social, religious and economic changes — globalism, differing views of the role of government and technology are transforming us. Some are left behind while others thrive. The behavior of President Donald Trump — his tweets and his insults — is valued by some. Trump’s protestations invigorate the disaffected — those who find our politics unresponsive and unhinged, as I found those of 50 years ago.
My generation and I were aggrieved five decades ago, but that frustration was mollified by ending the war and the passage of legal guarantees for minorities. Of course, our military escapades continue and the resolution of equality is far from settled. But compromise was reached. Progress was made.
What about now? Are we to be hopeful and optimistic that these problems can be addressed? Can a sense of respect, identity and equality be achieved?
Count me a guarded optimist. The job calls for more than a congenial effort to get along with each other. It is challenging and frustrating work. But as long as our freedoms of expression persist, our ability to hear and learn from each other continues.
We have been through worse. We must persevere.
Steve Schwegler of Liberty is a retired college administrator and lecturer who completed graduate studies in history.