I believe in standing up for what is right, even when you are standing alone.
I used to believe in a perfect nation . . . that the colonists cooperated peacefully with the Native Americans, and that the Revolutionary War occurred without the interference and manipulation of wealthy elites, that the Civil War was just about slavery, and that all of our history has been defined by the American dream, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence.
The truth is, though, that I don’t really believe any of these things.
Now, I know the truth of our history. I know about the manipulation of the working classes, the ruthless monopolization of industries, the atrocities Americans committed in the Philippines during the turn of the 19th century, and the truth behind Norman Rockwell’s WWII-era propaganda.
But most of all, I know now that the Civil Rights movement was not a time of peaceful talks and fine speeches…it was a time of ground-breaking change, heartfelt and devastating struggles, and, oftentimes, serious violence. I know that lawmakers attempted to limit blacks’ right to vote with the Voting Rights Act, and I know the abuse that the Little Rock 9 and the Greensboro 4 suffered.
The old, black-and-white pictures used to deceive me into thinking that it was a long time ago, that it was something from a story book or a history chapter. Now, I see the photographs of black protestors, beaten by policemen and set upon by dogs, and I realize, somberly, the truth…that those people were real, the conflict was real, and the pain was real. Bloody Sunday was no longer a story, and for the first time in my life, I understood on some level what Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech truly meant. I understood the sacrifices that he had made.
I didn’t used to know American history for what it was; now I do.
The United States I used to know was a vague and vapid nursery rhyme of utopian perfection; the United States I know now is one of rich, human complexity whose history shows both ups and downs. Now, I truly know America. And I believe I know what has made America what it is today.
I believe that we are who we are because of the people who stood up.
We are a nation of equality, a nation of “inalienable human rights.” When we were failing to stand true to those principles, others united together in order to regain their rights…whether it be a lonely Rosa Parks, refusing to budge, or the college students who participated in lunch counter sit-ins across the nation, or the Freedom Riders and the violence they faced, or the protestors whose blood was shed on the march from Selma to Montgomery.
They stood up, were beaten down, and stood up again, bloody and battered. They stood for their civil rights, for human rights, for racial equality, and for fair treatment.
We are by no means a perfect nation or a perfect people. But I believe that if we are to truly honor our principles and the inalienable rights of all individuals, we must continue to stand…even if it means being beaten down.