By David F. Kelley
If we cut the distance between two points in half, no matter how often, it brings them closer together, but they never meet. When I was practicing law I came to the conclusion that finding the “truth” was, very often, the same way. We rarely got to “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” I have since come to the conclusion that this theory is universal. Physics, for example, struggles to decipher the truths of the universe. We can get closer, but we will never reach the whole truth.
History is no different. The truth is hard to come by. In the former Soviet Union, history was treated like a loose-leaf notebook. Pages were inserted and torn out to suit the whims of those in power. Eventually the entire Soviet Union collapsed. In America we have been less cavalier about our search for history, but it has still been dangerously easy to paint the way we were with “pretty watercolor memories.”
In six weeks since George Floyd’s death there has been a reckoning with some of the more ugly truths about who we are and where we come from. Cellphone recordings of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks have been explosive evidence of systemic racism and that evidence has inspired a humbling, nationwide, soul-searching.
How could a bastion of higher education, like Yale Universty, ever have named a building for a man like John Calhoun, who spent his career defending slavery? How could statues stand for over a century honoring men who took up arms against their own country, so that they could continue, in Lincoln’s words, “wringing their
bread from the sweat of other men’s faces?” How could so many of us have been so blind to indefensible murders of black men?
The cellphone recordings of these murders may take us a step closer to the truth about who we are and where we come from, but we will continue to grapple with our history when so many of those to whom we owe so much, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were slave owners and racists. Jefferson himself wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that His justice cannot sleep forever.” Both he and Washington were wealthy men who risked their fortunes and their lives for one of history’s most precious ideas — the idea that human rights come, in the words of John Kennedy, “from the hand of God and not the generosity of the state.” That idea continues to lift the human condition. We need to be grateful, yet honest, about our origins.
I used to coach high school debate and would sometimes ask debaters to read the Lincoln-Douglas debates. One especially bright student read those debates and concluded Lincoln was a racist and didn’t deserve his exalted place in history. I hoped in the years to come he would consider that Lincoln had to work in the world he inherited, and that preserving the Union and ending slavery were colossal tasks. I hoped someday he could imagine a world where Stephen Douglas (born in Brandon, Vermont) had been elected president in 1860. It would have been a world where slavery was allowed to expand unchecked. But I was grateful that he was searching.
History is as much about the future as it is the past. There is now a national consensus that police practices need to change, but we need to do still more. We need to design housing policies that enable every American to build equity, particularly in low-income housing. Prisons have to stop being dumping grounds for the disenfranchised. Schools need to empower disadvantaged students with more opportunity.
We once thought the earth was flat. Today we plan journeys to Mars, but we still can’t explain how the universe was created. We once lived at the mercy of kings. Today our leaders get their powers from the consent of the governed, but equal justice still eludes us. We are a work in progress. The American journey’s destination is forever tomorrow and the search for the truth about yesterday forever endless. Much of history is tragic. At times, such as these, the past is painful, but still vital to remember.
There is a poem by Robert Frost about walking down an old road and sitting by some long abandoned homes and cellar holes. It ends with these words: “Here are your waters and your watering place. Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”
Remembering sustains us. The recordings of George Floyd’s murder helped reveal truths about who we are and where we have come from, and getting closer to that truth will make this a better nation.
David F. Kelley is an attorney and a co-founder of Project Harmony (now PH International).