Wednesday, June 3
To say I have slow Internet up here on Yankee Hill is a vast understatement.
I can’t stream. I can’t go to Netflix or Hulu or Disney and watch hit shows on a whim. I can’t plumb into vast archives of old movies in just seconds.
But I can order DVDs, and I’ve been making my way, disc by disc, through Ken Burns’ impressive collection of documentaries. I started with “Baseball,” “Prohibition” and “National Parks.”
I didn’t buy “The Vietnam War.” Thought it would be too depressing.
But late last week I finished watching all nine episodes of “The Civil War.” I did have to take a midstream break from the staggering body counts. Way too many grainy, black-and-white photos of dead, dismembered young Union and Confederate soldiers on too many battlefields.
Then I gritted my teeth and returned for the final two episodes. By the time it ended in 1865, the Civil War was (and remains) the bloodiest conflict in American history – between 650,000 and 740,000 dead.
After four years of carnage, surrender came on April 9, 1865 at the small Virginia town of Appomattox Courthouse.
“I do not know what General Lee’s feelings were,” Ulysses S. Grant later wrote of the ceremony, “but my own were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing in the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and so valiantly, and who had suffered so much for a cause. Although that cause, I believe, is one of the worst for which people have ever fought.”
Then, just five days after Robert E. Lee surrendered, President Lincoln was assassinated in Washington.
“Of all the men I’ve ever met,” said Union General William Tecumseh Sherman of Abraham Lincoln, “he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.”
Lincoln enjoyed five days of national peace before shots rang out at the Ford Theater.
The morning after I had finished watching “The Civil War,” news came out of Minneapolis:
George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man arrested by police for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes, died after one officer –Derek Chauvin – kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes while three of his colleagues looked on.
Chauvin was arrested and charged with murder. Several days later, the other three officers were charged with aiding and abetting murder.
The incident has sparked protests and demonstrations in cities across the nation. Many have turned violent, leading to battles with police, arson, looting and destruction.
This has been a repetitive pattern in our country. The four-year Civil War ended slavery 155 years ago, but not racism.
The war’s aftershocks have continued with stunning regularity over the many decades that followed. Segregation, Jim Crow laws, denied voting rights, lynchings and more. Riots in Watts, Detroit, Chicago and dozens of other cities. And now George Floyd joins Rodney King, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant and many others as flashpoints.
Just as we in the Mother Lode are far from the deadly epicenters of the Corona virus, we are just as far from the racial upheaval we see each night on the evening news.
Yet, as Americans, racism is our problem, too. And Courthouse Square demonstrations this week have demonstrated our awareness.
I am sure our nation will overcome Covid19. Most of us have proved we can stay at home, socially distance, wear masks and avoid crowds. And, be it late this year or sometime in 2021, we willhave a vaccine.
I am not nearly as confident about finding a solution to our long-running racial problems. No vaccine can eradicate prejudice.
Nor can continued rioting and destruction. Although I can understand the source of such anger and lawlessness, it will not lead to an answer.
If history is any indication, the outrage over George Floyd’s death may in time recede, and a measure of national amnesia will set in. And, as if in denial, we will turn our attention elsewhere – to the virus, to sports, to music or entertainment.
Until the next George Floyd comes along.
The answer? I am not certain.
But a degree of nationwide resolve and focus would help. So would putting aside partisan politics in the search of a solution. And a key will be visionary leaders who, like Abraham Lincoln, somehow combine goodness and greatness.