I just turned 64. Since watching the murder of George Floyd, I can’t stop thinking about how little has been accomplished in my lifetime. My generation came of age believing that we would make the world a better place. We were determined to stomp out prejudice and injustice. When did we give up on that dream? What happened to us?
On December 8, 1980, a friend and I were watching Monday Night Football. The announcer interrupted the play-by-play to report “an unspeakable tragedy.” Former Beatle John Lennon had been shot outside his building in New York City. He was “rushed to Roosevelt Hospital. Dead on arrival.” It feels to me now that we lost our moral compass that night. We went back to the game and somehow have kept our focus there ever since, enjoying the entertainment while ignoring what was happening around us.
The next morning, a co-worker said that Lennon’s murder was the final nail in the coffin of what the sixties stood for. The powers that be, he said, had already taken out the political and religious leaders who were driving change. With Lennon, they eliminated the leading voice in pop culture that was promoting peace and equality. I didn’t think much of his melodramatic conspiracy theory at the time.
I grew up in a time of hope and idealism. From John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the federal government aggressively enacted legislation to right social wrongs. It guaranteed civil rights (the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act), started a war on poverty (Job Corps, Head Start, the Food Stamp Act), funded public education like never before, provided health care to the poor and the elderly (Medicaid and Medicare), and took steps to protect our environment (the Clean Air Act, Water Quality Act, Endangered Species Preservation Act)
These steps toward a more just future were violently opposed. My first public memory is a November day in 1963 when my school’s principal announced that President Kennedy had been shot and killed. I have vivid memories of teachers, neighbors, my mother, and even newscasters, crying. Kennedy, with a 70% approval rating, was a symbol of a youth, freshness, idealism, and hope to the average American.
In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, who promised change and justice for all through non-violent protest, was gunned down outside a motel in Memphis. Riots in cities throughout the country ensued. A few months later, the probable Democratic nominee for president, Bobby Kennedy, who brought people of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds together, was assassinated in Los Angeles after winning the California primary. Two years later, The National Guard killed four students who were part of an anti-war protest at Kent State University.
It’s fifty years later and we’re still fighting over racial equality, voting rights, poverty and income inequality, gender equity, adequate funding for public education, saving our environment, and providing adequate health care for our citizens. Our failure to address these issues is the reason that this unimaginable health care crisis has hurt our most vulnerable disproportionately. George Floyd’s graphic murder is just another reminder of our failures and why like 1968, our cities are again inflamed with protests. I’m sorry to say that my former co-worker was right. The movement that could have helped us to avoid this was systematically destroyed to preserve a status quo of injustice that benefits the few over the many. Maybe if JFK, Dr. King, Bobby Kennedy, and John Lennon had been allowed to deliver on their visions, we wouldn’t be here today.
Since that night in 1980 we’ve created unprecedented wealth, but it’s benefitted an ever-smaller percentage of the population. The gap between rich and poor has grown substantially and the average worker’s purchasing power has been stagnant. We have persistent income and achievement gaps between races. Amid these facts, too many of us are callous to what’s happening around us and insulate ourselves from the pain in our society. Interactions with contemporaries reinforce this every day.
Friends tell me that we have to open the economy faster and accept that people are going to die. I understand that many are suffering economic hardship, so we have to find a way to reopen safely. However, the people I know are not talking about themselves or their families taking risks, but saying that they can accept the deaths of more of our poor and vulnerable. I actually know someone who called it a tragedy that his private beach club announced that the lunch bar wouldn’t be open this summer. I wonder how the 115,000 families mourning or 40 million who filed for unemployment feel about that?
To too many of us, it’s all about the stock market and asset values. Someone told me he’s going to vote for president based on where the markets are. I asked how he would factor in the president’s failure during this national crisis, his inability to show empathy, his tweets about gunning down citizens in our streets, or his fabricating a story accusing one of his critics of murder? He said it was just noise.
These are educated members of my generation. When I think about the ideals that we started out with, it’s hard to accept who we’ve become. How did we go from wanting to make the world a better place to taking all we can for ourselves with blinders on? What happened to us?
John Lennon wrote and sang: “Imagine all the people sharing all the world. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.”
There was a time I could imagine that and believe it was possible. If we’re to have any hope of a future, we need to find a way back to our ideals, start thinking beyond ourselves, and help to bring this country together.