As an historian, I’d normally prefer to look back on this moment in 20 years and analyze it from a more distant perspective. It’s more comfortable – looking back, using information we don’t yet have access to, trying different lenses, putting the puzzle pieces together.
But like all Americans before us who have lived through huge moments which are now relegated to our history books, we don’t have the luxury of hindsight in this, our own crisis. From Plymouth Rock to Little Rock, from Valley Forge to Gettysburg, our forbearers struggled through with only hope and determination. But we do have something else, something that they’ve passed down to us. We can glean from their experiences what kinds of puzzle pieces we might need to put in place to get through. For example, we may not know how this moment of crisis will end … but we are fortunate that we have already recognized it as a crisis. That’s the first puzzle piece.
We are also fortunate that we have already been building the infrastructure of resistance. Thousands of local organizations have risen up in the past few years and they have cut their teeth on the gritty work of protests, legislative appeals, and building solidarity. When Rosa Parks chose not to give up her seat on that December day, the Montgomery community had already been organizing. There was infrastructure set up for rapid communication, places to gather in large groups, and a new preacher in town who was a pretty good speaker. And there was a community ready to do whatever it would take … even walking miles to work daily for a year … to take down that segregated busing system. Having that infrastructure of resistance, that’s the second puzzle piece.
And we are fortunate that many Americans, motivated by this midterm election, have already stepped up, stretching beyond their comfort zones to do canvassing, phone banking, fundraising, running for office.
Historians point to the battle of Concord & Lexington as the spark of the American Revolution, “the shot heard round the world.” But thanks to some great social history, we also know that the towns of Concord & Lexington were pretty focused on their own lives, until just months before that epic event. They were worried about land disputes, family squabbles, and church clashes, just as we worry about school report cards, family illnesses and paying the bills. But when British authority exceeded acceptable limits, they turned their attention to resisting, and prepared to defend themselves and their way of life. And they spread the word … they convinced others that the British troops posed a more significant threat than Farmer Joe’s loose cow. Now I’m not suggesting you go home and polish up your musket, but that preparation and readiness exemplified by those Minutemen, that’s imperative. Spread the word, warn others of the danger, remain vigilant, be ready for action …. that’s the third piece.
Throughout our history, Americans have been willing to step up when required to do so. From heroics like those displayed by the 20th Maine Volunteers at Gettysburg, to quieter contributions and sacrifices like planting victory gardens and rolling bandages. From great public legal struggles like Brown vs. Board of Ed to the nearly invisible work of the Underground Railroad. From the solid determination of labor leaders like Mother Jones to the dust-covered tear-soaked work of unnamed firefighters searching the fallen towers on 9/11. When called upon to step up, at home and abroad, Americans have done so. I think it’s in our DNA. And that legacy of heroism, it lives in us and rises when called upon. That’s piece four.
And we will need all these pieces, and perhaps more, to meet this particular crisis. We have witnessed the unimaginable in America – a would-be dictator who has come to power and threatens all of our treasured democratic institutions … checks and balances, freedom of assembly and of the press, and perhaps the most vital, the rule of law. He has politicized our military, invented enemies and “threats” both within and beyond our borders, and ignored the very real threats we face, like Russia’s attacks on our national sovereignty and the violence of white nationalists across the nation. In this moment and the ones which follow …. our actions will determine what those future historians write, and how they write it. Will this be the moment when our great American experiment comes to an end? Will Putin win the day after all? He’s already claimed victory, already begun celebrating the demise of America.
Or will future historians talk about the eventual triumph of the rule of law, and of the millions of Americans who rose up to defend this one core principle of freedom and democracy?
This is why we protect the Mueller investigation. Not because we know its eventual conclusions, but because the investigation itself affirms American principles. This is why we resist. Not because we disagree with this president, but because NO president should have unfettered power. This is why we gather here … because we believe in ourselves, and each other, in America, and in continuing to strive for a more perfect union.
(Speech, Portland ME, 11/8/2018)