Last week I was in Washington, DC and had a morning free of meetings to wander among the monuments. Families, school kids, and tour groups from across the nation and around the world were there, searching out names on the Vietnam Memorial wall, reading the words of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, snapping selfies in front of the White House with the Washington Monument towering in the background.
It was a good antidote to the cynicism and division that tend to dominate our view of politics today. All those diverse tourists seemed to share a certain excitement and solemnity – a sense of respect for the struggles of the past and hope for the promise of a more just and peaceful future.
Those monuments remind us of the power of America’s founding ideals and that we’ve never fully realized them. Our Founding Fathers wrote in our nation’s Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal”, yet they enshrined slavery in our Constitution and excluded women, Africans and Native Americans from participation in the new democracy they created.
The words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address are inscribed on the wall by his statue. Near the end of the bloody and destructive Civil War, Lincoln spoke not of blame or revenge, but of shared guilt for the horrors of slavery. He committed to work for reconciliation, and knew it could not come about without attention to justice and individual well being. Lincoln concluded with these words: “With malice toward none; with charity for all… let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
The memorials to World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War that stretch between the Lincoln and Washington Monuments make clear that lasting peace among nations is far from realized. The Martin Luther King memorial reminds us that a full century after the close of the Civil War, we still needed a Civil Rights Movement and federal intervention to end racial segregation. We’ve come a long way in the 50 years since, but racial equality still has not been achieved.
We live now with continually streaming news reports of legislative and Congressional dysfunction, war, environmental destruction, school shootings, and cultural clashes. No wonder American voters tend to be cynical and apathetic.
A stroll among the monuments to our nation’s history is a good reminder that challenges and divisions are nothing new. We’ve faced seemingly intractable problems before. Sometimes one side is wrong and compromise isn’t possible. Slavery and racial segregation had to end.
Our democracy has never been perfect, but we’ve made progress toward realizing the vision of a nation where all are born with equal opportunity to pursue happiness.
That progress has come not just because we’ve had a few great leaders like Washington, Lincoln, and King. Each of them was supported by a broader movement of ordinary citizens who were willing to stand up and demand change from their government. Washington became our first president on the shoulders of the sons and daughters of liberty. Abolitionists campaigned for decades before Lincoln’s election and the abolition of slavery. King was one leader in the Civil Rights movement, and was reviled, jailed, and assassinated before he was enshrined in granite as a national hero.
Democracy and the promise of America is a work in progress. We can’t just wait for the next hero to come along and solve our problems. We have to do our part to bend the arc of history toward justice. We have to prepare the way for the next hero – and that hero may just be one of us.
Marilyn Watkins is policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a nonpartisan policy center focused on building and economy that works for everyone.