This spring is the 50th anniversary of my high school (Nicholas Blackwell High School, known informally then as Bartlett High School).
Fifty is an interesting number because we sometimes see it as reachable and other times as out of reach. It is easy to prepare a 50-page term paper (which most of my fellow alumni had to do in Mrs. Reed’s Senior English class) and there should be 50 people at the planned reunion of the class in the fall.
And while we can envision a trip of 50 hours or 50 days, it is very hard to envision a journey of 50 years. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of our graduation is more a celebration of longevity and, to some extent, survival. Attendance at a class reunion will always be smaller each year, especially when you reach that magic number of 50, because, in a competition with time, time is always the victor.
Now, I understand that ours is not the only senior class preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Every high school and college graduating class will eventually have such a celebration, so that does not make our reunion or any reunion unique.
But our reunion is unique because we graduated in 1968 and we are from Memphis, Tennessee.
Historians and pundits alike have identified 1968 as the most tumultuous year in American history. Events, local, national, and international, resonated in our lives that year.
There was the shift in public opinion concerning the Viet Nam war; there were the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr., and Senator Robert Kennedy, and the violence at the Democratic National Convention. Each of these events influenced the lives on all the people in the country but the degree of effect depends on where you were in time and place.
But when you live in Memphis, Tennessee, and your focus is on the future beyond graduation, April 4th is simply more than a date on the calendar (“Where Were You on April 4, 1968?”).
But as my fellow classmates planned to gather, as other senior classes make similar classes, what has happened in the past 50 years. The sanitation workers strike that brought Dr. King to Memphis began because the established power structure essentially refused to acknowledge the existence of the sanitation workers or their salary issues.
Some of those with Dr. King felt that he needed to focus on a bigger picture and not spend his time with a local strike. But you cannot focus on issues of economic inequality or racial inequality or gender inequality at the big picture level if you are not willing to work on resolving those issues on a local level. Even today, differences in economic status, race, and gender are perhaps greater than they were 50 years ago. Instead of moving forward, we have been moving backwards.
Fifty years ago, we were engaged in a war in southeast Asia; today we are engaged in multiple wars with the war in Afghanistan now longer than our involvement in Viet Nam.
We live in a society that spends more on the destruction of life and property than we do on rebuilding the world we are destroying. It does not take much to realize that this is a “no-win” path.
Fifty years ago, we sent Apollo 8 to the moon and began the preparation of landing two men on the moon that following summer. Today, our schools are slowly turning into factories that turn out drones rather than institutions focusing on creativity and critical thinking. And just as we are going to reach a point where we will not be able to repair or restore the world that we are destroying, we will soon reach a point where we will not have any individuals capable of fixing the technology that so empowers a world or creating new solutions.
Fifty years ago, we were aware that we were polluting the environment, poisoning the air we breathe and the water we drink. Steps were being taken to make this a safer and cleaner world; yet today, in the name of profits and rights of the business of the rights of the workers, those efforts are being reversed and removed.
The driving force, at least for me, fifty years ago, was the faith of the people. The people who worked against inequality saw that their faith was meaningless unless others were free from poverty, sickness, and oppression. But there were those then who felt that faith had no place in this battle and actively worked against the movement. And today, this alternative faith movement dominates the work.
This alternative faith movement is very much like the alternative political movement; in it, the only person that matters is yourself and what you can get. In their minds, others can receive the blessings of society only after they receive theirs; if there is anything left, it can be given to the needy but you create the system so that there is nothing left for others to share.
On April 3, 1968, Dr. King spoke of the future, of being at the mountain top and seeing the Promised Land. I will leave it to others to decide if this was a vision of his death. I think that Dr. King saw the future and understood that the journey down from the mountain top was going to be as difficult as the journey to the mountain top.
Today, the journey is far more difficult than we might have thought 50 years ago. Those who encourage, and support greed, exclusion, hatred, and violence seem to dominate today.
But we are beginning to see signs that some have decided that those voices shall no longer be the loudest. These new voices are beginning to be heard. Each is a small voice, but small voices are cumulative and each day it becomes louder.
Those of us who have made the journey from then to this day may not make it to the end, but we will and must help those who are just beginning the journey today. If we do not do this, we will never reach the Promised Land and will be like so many before us, only looking at it.