U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, said something a couple of weeks back that’s been circling through my brain:
“Look, I have this firm belief that if America hasn’t broken your heart, you don’t love her enough.”
My heart is breaking as our nation is being torn apart in ways never imagined by founding fathers and leaders of the country for 200 years.
My heart is breaking as too many Americans find it acceptable for a president to lie routinely, to threaten, to intimidate like a schoolyard bully.
My heart breaks as too many of America’s political leaders lack the courage to hold a president accountable for unconscionable, immoral behavior.
My heart breaks as so many people continue to get left behind as the haves have more.
My heart breaks as fundamental American precepts of liberty, truth, justice and common good are trampled upon with reckless abandon.
My heart breaks when today’s headlines, rallies and tweets often recall simmering hate, vitriol, fear, racism and hopelessness that marked the American South for generations.
If you read the memoir “Just Mercy” or watch the new movie with the same title, it’s not difficult to draw parallels between declining societal conditions now and what existed just three decades ago when Alabama attorney Bryan Stevenson started trying to free people on death row thought to have been illegally convicted.
Stevenson, who leads the Equal Justice Institute, has concluded through the years that the poverty that so many Southerners find themselves unable to escape has an opposite. But it’s not building wealth. Poverty’s opposite, he says, is justice.
“We’ve all been acculturated into accepting the inevitability of wrongful convictions, unfair sentences, racial bias and racial disparities and discrimination against the poor,” he said in a December 2015 interview. “I think hopelessness is the enemy of justice. We have too many insiders who become hopeless about what they can do.”
It wasn’t too long ago that a relatively unknown U.S. senator from Illinois became president on a campaign fueled by hope, iconically depicted by Charleston-born artist Shepard Fairey. So if what’s going on across the country now is loss of hope, a loss of justice and truth and the American way, what can we do to recapture hope?
Perhaps we can take a page from a community photography project from Newnan, Georgia, a town 40 miles southwest of Atlanta that has become far more diverse in the past two decades. Two years ago, a rally by white nationalists fizzled when organizers apparently didn’t realize the community had changed, according to a must-read Jan. 19 story in The New York Times. A year later, Newnan installed 17 banner-sized portraits of residents, from a jewel-wearing white doyenne and Baptist preacher to people of color and a pair of Muslim sisters.
To say that the exhibit sparked conversation appears to be an understatement. It forced Newnan to look at itself — something that every town in South Carolina should strive to do. The portraits in Newnan by photographer Mary Beth Meehan will come down in June, but they continue to inspire, as related by a Presbyterian pastor: “The truth is, these conversations are hard and uncomfortable and awkward, but we need to lean into it. We need to talk about who lives in our community, and if they are different, why does that make us uncomfortable?”
Amen. In times when armchair computer warriors spew venom online to divide America, we must invest in the hard work to talk more, not less. We need to watch and talk about movies like “Just Mercy” and engage in hundreds of conversations that highlight our common American values, not our differences.
Let’s not let the dividers win. Let’s rebuild hope in America so we can move forward.