We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
This preamble to the U.S. Constitution, drafted in September 1787 and ratified on March 4, 1789, is the guiding document for the United States of America. The Constitution was the first attempt to “federalize” or “unionize” the states…and it’s been a source of national political conflict ever since.
But what if the “Constitution” (of 1791) was “unconstitutional” in itself?
Here’s a brief history…
Before the ink on the Declaration of Independence had dried (July 4, 1776), our Founding Fathers introduced the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union” (July 12, 1776). It was our first Constitution and on March 1, 1781 was fully ratified.
Originally, our Founders envisioned the United STATES of America, and the Articles of Confederation reflected this grand idea. Under these Articles, the federal government had largely three abilities and that was to declare war, raise armies and negotiate treaties. The individual states retained all power to “constitute” (govern) their people as they desired, including taxes, education and commerce. These Articles were in effect throughout the Revolutionary War period (1777-1790).
It was the original desire of our Founders to craft a loosely-knitted confederation of states…each with a distinct flavor. This was particularly notable in religion. The fear of a national “church” was a reason why our Founders chose to “confederate” rather than “federalize” in 1776-1777. Every state had its “preferred” Christian religion. Maryland was Roman Catholic. Pennsylvania was Quaker. Virginia was Anglican. The vision of the Founding Fathers was to be a “Christian” nation without forcing any one particular sect of Christianity (with allowance to non-Christian religions–like Islam and Judaism–to live peaceably too).
The problem is some states governed differently than others and that produced unintended and terrible consequences. For example, in Massachusetts the Shay’s Rebellion (1786-1787) sparked concerns when thousands of angry farmers (who couldn’t get lines of credit) rioted and nearly brought the state down. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, their legislators passed a bill to abolish slavery (March 1, 1780) while other states like Virginia and Georgia used their sovereignty to strengthen their slavery laws. This is what eventually created the “free” and “slave” states of the American Civil War.
In the 1780s, a group of “federalist” Founding Fathers, who believed we needed to strengthen FEDERAL control and be the UNITED States of America, flexed their political power. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison penned a work known as “The Federalist Papers (1787-1788)” to promote a more “federal” government. But that didn’t sit well with other Founding Fathers. Anti-Federalists like Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams and James Monroe vehemently disagreed. We are the United STATES of America, they argued, and pointed to the “perpetual” (non-changing) nature of that first Constitution. This disagreement would become a political wedge that remains to this very day.
The only way to change things was to revise the original Constitution.
And so they did.
On May 25, 1787 a Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia, PA to sort the mess out. As you might expect, the debate was raucous and deeply divided. In fact, some delegates were so frustrated they headed for home. Consequently, a call to retreat, reflect, pray and read the Bible was suggested. And that’s what these delegates did. For hours the Founders prayed for our young nation. They read Scripture. They went to church. They started every session with a chaplain’s blessing and prayer (a tradition that continues to this day).
In the end a “peace” was found and an improved “democratic republic” was born. The Federalists won the argument and a new federal U.S. Constitution was drafted, then sent to the states to be ratified. This new Constitution gave the federal government more control but still recognized the sovereignty of individual states. But that didn’t stop the disagreement. Even though every state eventually ratified the new Constitution (a few begrudgingly), problems still remained. How much sovereignty does a state enjoy? For example, Southern states would later employ their “state’s right” to use slavery as part of their commercial and private interests. Texas and California simply solved the problem by constituting as “republics.”
And what about that one little word in the original 1776 Constitution: PERPETUAL? If the ORIGINAL Constitution is a PERPETUAL one, could it be changed at all?
Abraham Lincoln echoed this problem in his inaugural address (March 4, 1861): “The union is much older than the Constitution … the faith of all the then thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778.” And yet, even Lincoln realized the only answer to slavery was a FEDERAL and UNION solution. There are some issues bigger than one particular state’s preference and sovereignty.
Federalism flexed its muscles with the abolition of slavery, but it’s been seen in other ways too. A federal government purchased new western frontiers, created national transportation systems (trains, interstate highways), set aside national parks, instituted a national income tax, oversaw alcohol regulation, social security, public education, and other American interests. A federal government would send our sons to war in Europe, Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan.
But the STATES RIGHT (libertarian) idea has never fully died either. The ability for a state to sovereignly govern as its population desires is what sparked movements to abolish slavery, give women the right to vote, recognize gay marriage and legalize marijuana. It’s also what made some states “bluer” and others “redder.” It was states rights that led the Southern rebellion and secession to commence a Civil War. It still drives how individual states handle Covid-19 through mask and vaccination mandates. How much reach and influence does the Federal Government have on the individual state?
So the constitutional question has never gone away. It truly has been a “perpetual” sticky wicket.
Are we the UNITED (federalist) States of America?
Or are we the United STATES (confederation) of America?
It’s WHY “we the people” are always attempting to create a more “perfect union.”
Even though it’s truly an “inconvenient” process.
No sport framed 20th century American culture more than baseball.
In fact, America’s story–how we worked, what we believed, the battles we fought and the glory we shared–is found in the game. From the rise of a new industrialized economy to racism (against Jew, Italian, blacks) to celebrity culture, baseball was there. And every time life seemed bleak–when America (and her game) seemed off the rails–something happened (or somebody happened) to restore the public’s affection.
That was year of the famous “Black Sox” scandal where eight White Sox players–including the legendary hitter Shoeless Joe Jackson–worked with gamblers to throw the World Series to the lesser Cincinnati Reds. The scandal tarnished the game as “fixed” and unwholesome.
The year 1919 also ended of the dead ball ear in baseball, when great pitchers (like Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson) dominated the game. But it was also the same year that a new breakout superstar emerged. A legend who’d change the game (and America) forever: Babe Ruth. By the end of the 1920s baseball was truly the American pastime.
No contest is more important to baseball than the “World Series.” The fact it was called a “world” series in 1903 shows 20th century American hubris on full display. After all, it wasn’t until 1992, the end of the 20th century, that a non-U.S. team appeared in (and won) a World Series: the Toronto Blue Jays. It would be seven decades (1969) before baseball had a non-U.S. team (Montreal Expos). And while baseball enjoyed a multi-national European flavor for most of its early hey-days, blacks (from any national origin) were excluded from he major leagues until Jackie Robinson in 1946. And yet the Japanese would wait another five decades to finally (and truly) make America’s game a “world” game.
But 1903 is also a significant year…not just in baseball but for America’s influence.
That’s the year America came out to the world…and not just in baseball. In the same year that baseball’s FIRST World Series was held, America also made it’s first transatlantic radio broadcast (to England), the first multi-racial labor union was formed, the Ford Motor company and Harley-Davidson were founded, the U.S. gained rights to the Panama Canal and the Wright Brothers famously flew their plane.
You could argue that 1903 was America’s coming out party to the world. It was the opening of the American century.
In the coming decades, despite a deep national Depression and crises (like Pearl Harbor, JFK’s assassination and the Challenger explosion), America played the 20th century like a baseball game. We might’ve got two strikes down but we still found a way to get on base. We might’ve been buried early by the other team but we found second life and a way to comeback. America fought in two World Wars to save Europe (and other places) from evil fascists and vicious tyrants. We invented (or improved) the technology in transportation and communications that reimagined civilized culture. We created Hollywood, Madison Avenue and Wall Street. We carved our presidents faces in South Dakota rock, put a man on the moon and brought down the Berlin Wall.
It was quite a century for America.
And baseball was there for the entire story. In fact, baseball pretty much told the story.
From 1903’s launch of a World Series to to the infamous Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa race to beat the Babe’s single-season home run record in 1998, its an inspirational American tale of exceptionalism. From the Cy Young to Babe Ruth to Joe DiMaggio to Jackie Robinson to Willie Mays to Pete Rose to Ichiro Suzuki, it’s an American story of breaking down barriers and building new legends. From the “dead ball era” to “eight men out” to “a league of their own” to “moneyball,” it’s a classic Hollywood feature.
Baseball and America…mom and apple pie…country music and rock ‘n roll….Saturday night dances and Sunday morning church…this is US…the United States.
This is America.
It’s been said that Rome wasn’t built in a day…and that’s true. But it also didn’t fall in a day. And the reasons it collapsed were impacted by certain political decisions, unavoidable events and socio-cultural shifts.
In general, there were five factors that eroded Rome’s foundation over three centuries:
1. UNEXPECTED PLAGUES. Between 165 and 252 AD, millions of Romans were killed by deadly viruses, including three of their emperors. One of the plagues destroyed a third of the Roman population.
2. UNRESTRAINED AND OPEN BORDERS. While the Chinese were bricking their “great wall,” Rome allowed refugees and immigrants to enter freely and overrun their system. The historian Will Durant commented: “if [Rome] had occasionally closed her gates to let assimilation catch up with infiltration, she might have gained new racial and literary vitality from the infusion, and might have remained a Roman Rome, the voice and citadel of the West.”
3. LOSS OF NATIONAL CULTURE AND LANGUAGE. Initially immigrants into the Roman empire adopted the language (Latin), but eventually newcomers kept their own native tongue, forcing Romans to learn immigrant dialects and to adopt foreign customs, holidays and traditions. The idea of being “Roman” and living “Roman” was eventually lost.
4. ENTITLEMENTS AND WELFARE. In the early second century AD, Roman politicians used “free” grain, wine, bread and public circuses to buy political favor. The violence of the circuses de-sensitized the populace, distracted the ignorant and placated the self-absorbed from their leaders’ true political intentions. Eventually entitled Romans sold their rights of “freedom” in exchange for food and pleasure.
5. LOSS OF VIRTUE AND INCREASE IN VICE. As the Roman Empire aged, its culture devolved into theft, greed, violence, falsehood, sexual immorality, gluttony, injustice and infidelity. The 5th century historian Salvian concluded: “What hope can there be for the Romans when the barbarians are more pure than they?”
With these factors in play additional vices further bankrupted the Roman empire, including sex trafficking, slavery, pornography, homosexuality and divorce. Consequently, Roman families produced less children, crime skyrocketed and litigation became the rule in Roman culture.
Roman cities degenerated into cesspools. Fewer people owned land. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Personal and government debt was out of control. Rome leveled higher taxes just to fund their growing welfare state, infrastructure and building projects, further hurting the “hoi polloi” (common man). Rome eventually imported more than it exported. Rome currency devalued and inflation exploded.
The influence of the Catholic Church also proved a factor, as it chose to isolate and segregate from the growing pagan culture. In the late stages of the Roman Empire, fewer Christians held public Roman office and influenced the culture. Meanwhile Roman government became more corrupt. The Roman constitution was actually ignored by its politicians in order to retain their power and a paycheck. Historians note how the Roman army was always in a war…somewhere…to distract the population from domestic problems.
Overall, in a matter of decades, Roman patriotism declined with each new generation. Durant wrote: “The new generation, having inherited world mastery, had no time or inclination to defend it; that readiness for war which had characterized the Roman landowner disappeared.”
As the Roman military weakened, more and more terrorist attacks happened…both inside and outside the nation state of Italy. In the mid-5th century Attila the Hun killed 20 million in his marches across Europe, Africa and Persia…and attempted to seize Rome…but failed.
Historically, there are two different “bookend sackings” of Rome. First, by the Visigoths (410 AD) and later the Vandals (455 AD). On September 4, 476 AD, the longest and greatest empire in world history was finally done.
The decline and fall of the Roman Empire is a textbook tale for all nations and societies to heed.
America has only been around 245 years. We’re just a pup in the timeline of nation empires. The 20th century was labeled “the American century” for our exceptionalism in war, economy, the arts, sports and other cultural contributions. All the world looked to us for the answers and many countries moved toward democracy as a result, while great Communist walls fell.
But we’d be ignorant and foolish to think we can travel the same path as Rome, which we surely are doing, and not face a similar demise. For decades our enemies have looked for ways to break this grand country and end the “American experiment” of a democratic-republic, one founded upon biblical principles and Christian faith. Incidentally, one of the greatest enemies to Christianity has always been Islam.
On September 11, 2001 America was attacked by Islamic terrorists. They attacked the heart of our national pride: our “world” influence and economy (World Trade Center) and our military (Pentagon). The fourth plane, by the way, had its sights on the U.S. Capitol building. And nothing has been the same since that terrible day.
In the past 20 years America’s moral and spiritual foundations has rapidly eroded. We’ve become a more profane, violent, greedy, addicted, litigious, sensual, sexual, arrogant and divisive culture. Our youngest generations (those born after 1980) have no recollection of the America that’s fading fast into history.
Christianity, once the moral citadel of American culture, is now openly mocked, hated and persecuted. Our schools have become indoctrination zones. Our media is now propaganda wings for the political left or right. Our populace, saddled in debt, has become an entitlement culture. Meanwhile, movements to “improve” and “reimagine” America only create more hate, fear and angst…as they tear down our history and remake our story.
We’re just modern Romans, friends. And we are ripe for the picking…very ripe.
Many music historians now credit the Bee Gees with single-handedly reviving disco in the late 1970s to make it the dominant musical genre we know today.
The modern civil rights movement began and ended with edicts by two “Kings.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963 launched it, while Rodney King’s “Can We All Get Along?” television message on May 1, 1992 ended it.
It was three decades of “movement” that abolished segregated schools, housing, bus seating, bathrooms, hotels, parks and other public spaces for black America. King’s “Dream” put Southern “Jim Crow” Democrats on notice, including their feared terrorist organization: the Ku Klux Klan. For decades the KKK executed justice while southern Democrat politicians kept blacks from exercising their basic civil rights, from the right to vote to where they lived.
These white robed and hooded KKK thugs burned crosses, torched homes…and lynched.
According to the Tuskegee Institute, there were 4743 lynchings between 1882 and 1968 in 44 different states. A quarter of these lynchings were white Americans. That’s because the Southern Democrats and the KKK also lynched Republicans, Roman Catholics, Jews and other foreigners. The last black man lynched in America was a 19-year old kid named Michael Donald, found hanging in a Mobile, AL tree on March 21, 1981.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fearless rhetoric on August 28, 1963 sent a clear message that all lives mattered:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Did King’s speech end racism in America? Absolutely not. Cultural racism remains an issue to this day. But his speech and work eventually produced the end of institutional racism, that is the use of coordinated, public and political means (including “southern justice”) to keep black Americans segregated, oppressed and fearful. To win over white America–particularly its religious culture–King (a Southern Baptist minister) used the new medium of television to point a camera at southern inequality and injustice.
His work helped to end the KKK, which now numbers at best a few thousand (compared to over 4 million members during the 1920s). His work ended lynchings and wholesale segregation. His work and “dream” helped black Americans to pursue great wealth, fame and power. From Barack Obama and Kamala Harris to Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas to Michael Jordan and LeBron James to Sydney Poitier and Morgan Freeman, there is no longer a segregated employment “plantation” for the black man or woman. In the past 60 years black men and women have become successful CEOs, presidents, mayors, governors, astronauts, authors, movie-makers, musicians, athletes and countless other great professions.
Which brings us to the second “King” in this tale.
Born two years after King’s speech, Rodney King grew up a troubled kid near Pasadena, CA. In 1989, he brutalized a Korean store owner for $200 in cash and spent a year in prison. And then, in the early morning hours of March 3, 1991, King and two friends were returning from a party. They were all inebriated and King knew a D.U.I. violated his parole. So Rodney tried to outrun the cops with speeds reaching 117 m.p.h. He even recklessly drove 80 m.p.h. through residential neighborhoods, running stop signs and lights.
When the police finally stopped him, King reportedly made light of the situation, waving at the police chopper, giggling and grabbing his butt (which police interpreted as where he holstered a gun). When four officers tried to handcuff King, he resisted arrest. He was tasered and then rushed officers multiple times. That’s when he’s knocked down by a baton-wielding officer. Officers continued to beat King, even after ordered to stop. Eventually King was cuffed and arrested.
If it wasn’t for an amateur videographer named George Holliday, this event would’ve never been recorded. And even then, his video tape showed only the latter part of the police beating. There was no record, other than police reports, about the events that led to King’s arrest. In the end Rodney King was never charged in this incident despite clearly driving under the influence and evading arrest. The videotape was the bigger story. It literally created a new narrative that exonerated King…and made him a millionaire hero.
Essentially, Rodney King was the victim. Despite his criminal record, his parole violation, his drunk driving, his excessive speeding and resisting arrest, King was the new poster child for police brutality.
The L.A. police department was now on trial. Surprisingly, race wasn’t the issue…at first. However, the black community in L.A. had a long grievance against how the police responded, worked and arrested in their communities. King’s “moment”–despite his crimes–were surprisingly overlooked and excused. What mattered was getting justice for the collective “beatings” the black community had endured (and still faced) at the hands of L.A. police. In their minds there was no difference between Rodney King and Martin Luther King when it came to police beatings, although the latter was clearly done without any criminal mischief. In the black community’s minds, Rodney King was a personification of every black person who was unfairly targeted, arrested and sometimes beat up by the police.
After a highly-publicized trial–presented to a jury composed of ten white, one bi-racial, one Latino and one Asian–on April 29, 1992, all four officers were acquitted of assault. In the charge of excessive force, three of the four officers were found not guilty.
The acquittals lit the fuse to the L.A. riots of 1992. The black community was enraged by the verdicts and decided to mete out their own justice by beating, torching and looting. Roaming black gangs targeted whites, Asians and Latinos. One group of thugs pulled a white man from his vehicle and viciously beat him up, leaving him for dead. Thousands of businesses were vandalized, looted and torched. Whole neighborhoods went up in flames. For six days, Los Angeles was like a war zone. When the smoke cleared, 63 people were dead, thousands more injured and over 3,100 businesses destroyed (nearly $1 billion in total damage).
In the middle of the riots, on May 1, 1992, Rodney King stepped up to a microphone to, hopefully, quell the firestorm:
I just want to say – you know – can we all get along? …Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?…It’s not right, and it’s not going to change anything. We’ll get our justice. They’ve won the battle, but they haven’t won the war. We’ll get our day in court, and that’s all we want. And, just, uh, I love – I’m neutral. I love every – I love people of color. I’m not like they’re making me out to be. We’ve got to quit…It’s just not right, because those people will never go home to their families again. …We all can get along. We just gotta. We gotta. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s, you know, let’s try to work it out. Let’s try to beat it, you know. Let’s try to work it out.
Rodney King’s “can we all get along” message signaled the end of Martin Luther King’s “dream.” By 1992 it was clear that racial injustice remained a perceived problem (in the black communities) and MLK’s vision was likely just a pipe dream. A new era had dawned. In this post-King world, new, more divisive, voices had emerged to spark a distinctly “black power” movement, underfoot since the late 1960s. Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X. Bobby Seale. The Nation of Islam. Black Panthers. During the 1970s, exclusive black culture became a television staple. Sanford and Son. The Jeffersons. Good Times. What’s Happening. Soul Train. Black movies like Shaft and Superfly were popular. Black music from funk to rap, from Earth, Wind and Fire to Michael Jackson ruled the airwaves.
Black America further politically and culturally dominated in the 1980s, most notably behind their own network “Black Entertainment Television” and the racially-segregated politics of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who wanted a distinctly black political party. The Cosby Show reimagined blacks as wealthy, hip and smart (and with an 89% white audience, the “Cosby factor” was a cultural juggernaut). Meanwhile MTV, finally bowing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” devoted huge blocks of air time to promote rap and hip hop music, exposing young white America to these new genres. The National Basketball Association evolved from predominantly white in 1965 to nearly all black in 2020. In fact, out of 450 professional basketball players, only 43 are American-born white (less than 10%).
But not all was well. In the wake of the Reagan revolution, urban poverty continued and black America was hit hardest. In the “urban jungle” black gangs became millionaires selling crack. Theft, murder and other violence ruled the streets. Gangster rap told the tales. Places like Rodney King’s Los Angeles–particularly neighborhoods like south-central Compton–were ground zero.
A new black narrative also emerged.
Martin Luther King’s pacifism wasn’t the answer. After all, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated outside room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN. His final words, reportedly, were to a musician named Ben Branch set to perform that night: “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his life. He was a martyr.
Instead of looking at how King galvanized a civil rights movement to end systemic racism for the black and create a “unified” racial culture with no colors, the African-American community (as they now preferred to be called) wanted a different outcome. They preferred to remain racially segregated (“black and proud”)…but they also wanted to be wealthy, powerful and famous too. And since the 1980s, that’s exactly what happened. A lot of black America escaped poverty to make a name for themselves…not to mention a lot of money. Today there are more millionaire black Americans than ever.
But this rich reality only further divided black Americans into two social classes: The Cosby and Fresh Prince “rich” (which still looked awfully “white” to many blacks) and the Straight Outa Compton “poor.” The rich blacks no longer faced prejudice or racism, like their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers had. But the poor urban blacks felt differently. In their minds, they were still held down and still oppressed because they were still poor. Their “projects” were now “slums.” Their urban schools were a mess. Black unemployment skyrocketed while Latino and Asian businesses now controlled their neighborhoods. They only way a young black urban male could get “rich” was to gang bang, sell dope and steal.
It’s why poor urban blacks eventually looked to Rodney King as the working solution to their cultural racism. He became a new model for how blacks could get “rich” quick. After all, for his trouble, King was awarded $3.8 million (but only after he turned down a $200,000 free college education). And while his pay day set him for life, it didn’t insure success. King spent his money on a record label that failed. He wrote a memoir that few read. He married and divorced twice. He exhausted much of his money for alcohol and drugs. He eventually landed on reality television…in a celebrity rehab show. Essentially, Rodney King made millions for getting beat up by the police. He then stayed famous for being bad. In July 1995 King went so far as to use his car to hit his wife. On June 17, 2012, his girlfriend found him dead at the bottom of his swimming pool. Alcohol, cocaine and PCP were found in Rodney’s system.
It’s why this is the tale of two Kings.
One a southern messiah who righteously laid down his life in Memphis to carved a dream for his people and forever end institutional racism in America. The other a troubled addict who ended the King era, now smoldering ashes in south-central L.A.–with five short words: “Can’t we all get along?”
It truly was the end of the modern civil rights movement.
In the coming years and decades, new movements emerged with new “heroes”–nearly all with criminal records–to galvanize a purely “Black Lives Matter” culture. From O.J. Simpson to Michael Brown to George Floyd, black Americans often blamed and shamed the police–and sometimes rightly so–to force wholesale reform in police arrest tactics, criminal justice, prison sentencing and incarceration. Often million dollar payouts rewarded the grieving families of sons killed by the police. Furthermore, in the past decade, a new “critical race theory” of American shame revised our national history to project what many believe is a purely racist view. According to this theory, the U.S. Founding Fathers were racists and wanted the institution of slavery. Slavery was now our greatest national sin. In some applications of critical race theory, white people are prejudiced, responsible…and even evil.
In an age where smartphone video and YouTube instantly released raw and unedited material, everything is now subjected to the court of public opinion first. Social narratives are spun on Facebook and Twitter, sometimes completely counter to the actual facts. Ironically, in many ways, the civil rights movement is also a tale of visual technology, aided first by television, then camcorder video and, finally, the smartphone camera.
The irony is America is more racially divided than ever, even while minorities enjoy better livelihoods.
It’s why the messages of both Kings remain relevant and necessary.
As Martin Luther King concluded:
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.
Indeed, I too pray that one day ALL lives will matter and ALL Americans–regardless of ethnicity, age, gender or religion–will be fully free.
Gen X (born 1961-1981) is the most incarcerated generation in American history, as the Pew Research confirmed this past week. According to the Bureau of Justice, the number of Americans in prison currently has returned to the 1995 level, and continues to fall annually.
The rate had been rising exponentially every year since 1980, when Gen X began to graduate high school and enter young adulthood.
And since the majority of incarcerated people go to prison between the ages of 20 and 40, one particular generation of kids grew up more “troubled” and “jailed” than the others.
The question is “why?”
Could it be that Gen X was raised in a new R-rated cultural permissiveness that featured divorce, abortion, sexual exploration, profanity, violence and drugs/alcohol? Many sociologists point to these more tolerant attitudes and media as a reason.
Could it be that, in the 1980s, moral training, church attendance and religious faith declined in influence? Gen X was the first American generation to leave religion at graduation…and never return. They did not receive the same moral and religious foundation as previous American generations. Many religious leaders point to this absence of moral training as a reason.
Could it be that morality, religion and civil behavior, was lampooned in ’80s and ’90s pop culture, from television to music to movies? Many educators, politicians, preachers and other civic leaders have pointed to these media narratives that mocked good behavior as a reason.
Whatever the reason, Gen X did mature to be more agnostic, apathetic, self-destructive, profane and addicted than previous U.S. generations…a veritable cocktail for trouble that can lead to life behind bars.
Cultural labeling as “bad news bears” likely didn’t help Gen X either. Portrayed as “breakfast club” delinquents, Gen X grew up jaded, abandoned and wounded…a “throwaway” generation. Justice, even for minor crimes, was swifter and more excessive in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. In several U.S. states it was literally “three strikes and out.”
As a result of the culture they grew up in, Gen X was a generation more likely to get into trouble…and then do the time…with longer sentences.
With the Millennial generation–who was culturally more wanted, protected and appreciated–the decline in incarceration rates was a blessed result. However, this decline in recent years is also helped by prison reforms and more appropriate sentencing.
Gen X. Goonies. Nerds. Bad News Bears.
Born in the 1960s and 1970s, these kids were also known as “slackers” and the Dumb Generation. They wore their baseball caps backward, listened to heavy metal, grunge and rap. They dropped out of school and church, played video games, got tattoos and earrings, and generally disgusted our elders.
Their young adult lives were “bookended” by tragedy and curse. The oldest experienced 1986. The youngest endured 2003.
In 1986 a space shuttle named “Challenger” exploded on takeoff. The Iran-Contra affair blew up the Reagan revolution. And Bill Buckner booted a soft grounder that cost his Red Sox their first championship since 1918. The Sox were “cursed.” Bill Buckner was vilified…as was a new generation soon to labeled as “X.” Bon Jovi’s two hit songs in 1986 summed us up: “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “You Give Love a Bad Name.”
In 2003 a different space shuttle named “Discovery” exploded upon re-entry. The U.S. went to war with Iraq. And a mild-mannered, nerdish Chicago Cubs fan named Steve Bartman got fingered and crucified for costing his team their first trip to the World Series since 1945…all for trying to catch a foul ball…which he muffed. Someone else even got the ball. Bartman just sat there, stoic and silent, watching his beloved Cubs let the Marlins put up 8 runs to win the game. Meanwhile, Cubs fans hurled abuse, dumped beer and chanted profanely at Bartman.
The number one song in 2003? Linkin Park’s “Numb.” It fit Steve Bartman’s demeanor in that moment.
And that’s what Gen X was by the early 2000s. N-U-M-B.
The attacks on September 11, the collapse of the economy, and the “Great Recession” would cost careers. The older Gen Xers simply lost everything (and were now “too old” to be re-hired). The younger ones were just “numb” as downsized to survive. Most Gen Xers retreated into entrepreneurial ventures by 2010 only to see Covid-19 shutdowns destroy them again in 2020.
Maybe they are Gen X. A bit naughty. Knocked out. Stuck at a crossroads. But X also marks the spot…where Buckner missed and Bartman muffed. Some of them are nerds or goonies or bad news. But they’re hardly slackers or dumb. They have lived on a prayer all their lives. And they are cursed to a degree, struck by tragedy and crisis, but they don’t let blame be their epitaph. They’ll figure it out. They always do.
America (and her institutions) needs this generation more than ever. They’re in their 40s and 50s now, a bit more paunchy and gray. But they still have a lot of fight in them. They have a lot of good ideas too. They’re ready to lead. And maybe they’ll still get that gold ring.
No, Bill Buckner never got his hardware, but Steve Bartman did.
In 2016 the Cubs finally won the World Series (108 years between championships) and the organization put the “curse” to rest by awarding Steve Bartman his own championship ring. Buckner was also formally forgiven in 2004 when the Sox ended their championship curse and found redemption in 2008 when he finally relented and accepted the invitation back into Boston’s baseball fold. Both men lived reclusive lives after “their moments.” Buckner retreated to Idaho for years of quiet solitude. He died in 2019, in a little town outside Boise, far from Boston. Bartman still lives quietly and secretly with his family, somewhere in Chicago. Although formally encouraged and welcomed back to Wrigley, he’s never attended a Chicago Cub game since October 14, 2003. He refuses all media requests.
Gen X–those jaded kids of the 60s, 70s and 80s–will likely finish the same.
Maybe they’ll never get the “ring” (cultural blessing) they deserve, but maybe they’ll earn some respect and redemption in the end…if the ball bounces favorably their way.
Today we celebrate the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon in 1969. It was a momentous and heroic feat, a testament to American strength, ingenuity and persistence. Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins are historic names and this moment an “American moment.”
But we should never forget Apollo 1.
Just two years earlier, on February 27, 1967, three Apollo astronauts were incinerated inside their capsule while it still sat on the pad. Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were America’s first human casualties in the race to the moon. Their names are no less historic nor important.
Mission Control flight director Gene Kranz summarized the tragedy as being too “gung ho” and not truly being ready for launch. He then issued this directive to all his engineers at NASA’s Mission Control center:
“From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: “Tough and Competent.” Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for.
Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect.
When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write “Tough and Competent” on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.”
TOUGH AND COMPETENT. These were the values that landed a man on the moon on July 20, 1969. These were the principles that made, and still make, America great. George Washington. Abraham Lincoln. Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony. The boys who stormed a Normandy beach. Ronald Reagan. The first responders who climbed the twin towers on September 11, 2001.
Those two words describe true Americans. It’s why no depression is too great, no war too lost and no moon too far. We the people will figure it out. It’s how we landed three Americans on the moon. It’s the heart of the U.S.A.
And the story of US.