One day in 1982, when we were a reporter, we got into a curious conversation with the local school superintendent. We were 23; he must have been in his early 40s. We mention the ages because of what he said, a line we haven’t been able to shake for decades:
“The Sixties were an aberration.”
What he meant was that the social liberalism of the era was an exception in American history, and that now, at the dawn of Reagan, the country was reverting to norm. We protested, without success — problem was, at the time the Sixties and Seventies were all we knew.
Which makes us an aberration.
If you were around before the Sixties, you had a living context for the events that unfolded. If you were born after the Sixties, hey, it’s all history. But growing up during the Sixties, that was the world as we found it: a world of social triumphs capped by a moon landing.
Why wouldn’t the rest of our life be like that, living in an America that just kept getting better?
Except — spoiler alert — it didn’t.
And we’ve pretty much spent our adult life trying to understand what we grew up taking for granted.
Every time we see John Lewis in the news, we’re reminded about our unique aberrant perspective, since he was deeply involved in two of those triumphs we accepted as given.
The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts passed when we were five and six, and they were the culmination of — well, gosh, a century of struggle, centuries if you really want to trace it back. But while we could appreciate the symbolic fruits of the moment — integrated TV casts! — we didn’t have any clue then, nor for years later, just what extraordinary achievements those were.
Because as late as November 1963 — when we were four — there wasn’t a chance in hell of anything like that being signed into law. Jim Crow — the racist regime in place since the Civil War — was still in full swing.
Imagine yourself being subjected to that regime. Imagine generations of your family being subjected to it, after they had legally been “freed”. Imagine the sheer hopelessness of that situation, especially in the moment one of the Senatorial enforcers of that regime just ascended to the presidency.
And then it all goes away within months. Not without lingering effects, of course, not that we aren’t still living with the consequences, but ours is a different era.
We’re reminded of John Lewis because Jesus Fucking Christ can the country survive the stupidity of its own people long enough to make serious social progress again? We’re reminded because we were lucky to be born into the very decade when shit finally happened and we grew up too spoiled to realize how precious that was, how difficult it was to get there, and how what we’re witnessing now — even now — doesn’t hold a candle to what generations of Americans endured before us.
John Lewis lived through it, lived to tell about it, and he’s still fighting for it. And we’re still a spoiled child to his man, whining about how people are stupid.
People have always been stupid. John Lewis got shit done anyway.