Beyond Truths That Are Self-Evident
Tuesday, August 18, 2020
by: Jonathan Raymond

Section: From our Executive Director


Beyond Truths That Are Self-Evident

“An army, that purported to liberate the world for freedom and democracy, that was not integrated, was a fallacy.” Wow! These are powerful words spoken by our African American guide at the Rosie the Riveter National Park Museum in Richmond, California, who had experienced extensive job and housing discrimination during the war years and beyond.
“An army, that purported to liberate the world for freedom and democracy, that was not integrated, was a fallacy.” Wow! These are powerful words spoken by our African American guide at the Rosie the Riveter National Park Museum in Richmond, California, who had experienced extensive job and housing discrimination during the war years and beyond. I was there with 20 high school students from the UC Berkeley “History Makers” summer seminar, an intensive four-week summer U.S. History and Civics teaching and learning experience. For these students, many first and second generation Americans, it was a chance to dive deeply into the monumental struggles America faced during World War II.

I asked our real life “Rosie,” 95 years young: Given her perspective, how much in our country has changed and how much remains the same? “I’ve been fortunate in my life to live long enough to now see certain patterns that I might have thought and reacted to differently when I was younger,” she said. “We’ve had many crises in my lifetime, each spiral more intense than the last one, and we are in another right now. And we manage to use those experiences to somehow find a way through. It’s ironic,” she concluded. “Given all we are facing, that I’ve never been more optimistic.”

We sat silent. How could she be so optimistic considering the seemingly overwhelming challenges America and the world are facing today? Perhaps because she had seen younger generations before overcome intractable obstacles. Or maybe, that day in Richmond, she saw high school students transfixed by her personal story. Whatever it was, her spirit was uplifting.

So I ponder — where in history could our young people look for inspiration? Obviously, the spirit exemplified by the workers honored in the Rosie the Riveter Museum is one such place. But there are many other valuable examples from even further back in our history. It could be the Delegates of the Second Continental Congress, who courageously declared their independence from the King of England and set forth the compelling principle that “all men are created equal.” How about 21 years later, after winning that independence in 1783, President Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on an expedition to the West, an epic adventure to help establish the identity of a young country? Or, as recently featured in the New Yorker, the 1852 July 4th address Frederick Douglass gave to the Ladies of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society, in which he spoke of the “darkest ironies embedded in American history” with his stirring question: “What to the American slave is your fourth of July?” Like our park guide in Richmond, Douglass concluded his remarks that day also voicing optimism: “Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe.”

So, back to our young people. Today, as the world’s oldest democracy, we need young people’s passion, creativity and fresh perspectives to take on our most difficult challenges — from global warming to disinvestment in education, from political gridlock to income inequality. As did the Founders through the Declaration, Lewis and Clark through their journals, Douglass through his 4th of July speech and the home-front workers and soldiers overseas in World War II, we need new voices and visions of what’s possible, and active engagement from a new generation. Such a commitment by our young people can be just the inspiration my generation (and my father’s generation) are looking for so that we can work together to face our most persistent challenges.
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