Monday, January 17, 2011

"Some things you must always be unable to bear." -- William Faulkner

Whenever I visit Washington DC, I leave time to walk the Mall, usually the south end and often at night. I walk into Maya Lin's exquisitely simple Vietnam Memorial, a series of black slabs that slice down into the earth and back out. It never fails to move me.

Then I walk on over to a site that resonates with voices long past, with symbols of what is painfully best about our country. Eleanor Roosevelt asked Marian Anderson to sing here on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after she was refused by the Daughters of the American Revolution. It is here that Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis and so many others stood looking out at thousands gathered and stretched out past the Reflecting Pool in late August for the "March on Washington," where Dr King made his "I have a dream" speech. It's the same location where several years later I returned to participate in the Poor People's March. And it's where I took my five year old son, to read him Abraham Lincoln's words that are chiseled into the back wall of the memorial. It was difficult to explain to him that Lincoln was assassinated for what he had said and done as president of this country.

When I return next month, the new memorial to honor Dr. King will be nearly finished. It will stretch my walk to the northeast end of the Tidal Basin, near to the FDR Memorial and the Jefferson Monument. Like the Lincoln Memorial, visitors will be able to read what Dr. King said.

Faulkner is right that there are some things that can never be born. For me, a college kid from a small town in northern Iowa, it was and is inconceivable that some elements of our society were so filled with hatred, anger and mental illness that men who spoke to what is best in us were murdered. We are shaken now by what we have seen in Tucson. I have only to remember that my college years included the assassinations of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. As I listen to Dr. King's words being rebroadcast today, it's clear just how far we still have to go.

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