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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

What Will It Take

Here are two numbers to fix in your mind as the nation once again visits an aspect of American exceptionalism that has become all-too-familiar. The numbers are 8,261 and 29 and I’ll return to them in a moment.

In the 1950’s and 60’s it took a landmark Supreme Court decision – Brown v. Board of Education – the courage and dignity of a black woman who refused to go to the back, the murder of innocents in a Birmingham church, a March on Washington, much death and violence and ultimately the breaking of Senate filibusters to begin to erase a society’s legacy of slavery and inequality.

From the 1820’s until the great Civil War the subject of slavery could barely be touched in our nation’s political process, so national calamity came calling. The south’s domination of American politics from the 1890’s to the 1960’s meant that civil rights legislation, including anti-lynching laws, access to public accommodations and the ballot box were essentially denied to black Americans, but then something changed. The American people, at least enough of them, acting through their elected representatives decided that society needed to change. A black preacher and a president from Texas, one calling us to live out our creed and the other breaking with his own and his region’s history, began to move us, as Hubert Humphrey once said, “out of the shadow of states’ rights and…into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

The change was slow, too slow, and uneven. For decades our Constitution was interpreted to allow discrimination and thereby ignore and avoid our peculiar and exceptional history. Ultimately the Court had to change along with society and politics and change came.

The political process, paralyzed thanks to special interests, fear, tradition and the next election, had to change and finally it did. The little black girls who were murdered and the white woman who was killed represented a change that, to many Americans, seemed impossible, but wasn’t impossible, only hard and necessary. The passage of the landmark civil rights legislation nearly 50 years ago did not, of course, end discrimination or stamp out racism. Ending those evils remains a constant work in progress, but few would say that America is not a different place in 2013, with a black man in the White House, than it was in 1963 when the young black preacher wrote from his Alabama jail expressing “hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

A Too Distant Tomorrow

This morning Priscilla Daniels woke in Washington, D.C. under her own dark cloud. Her 46-year-old husband, Arthur, was killed Monday at the Washington Navy Yard in the most recent mass shooting in America. Priscilla Daniels’ 14-year-old son, Arthur A. Daniels, was shot and killed in 2009 – as his father was Monday – in the back while fleeing his murderer.

“The parallels between the deaths of her husband and son are not lost on Priscilla Daniels,” the Washington Post reports. “Aaron Alexis, the shooter in Monday’s rampage, had repeated run-ins with his military superiors and the law and was cited at least eight times for misconduct for various offenses, according to documents and Navy officials.

“The person who shot her son in 2009 — Ransom Perry Jr. of Northeast — had been arrested nine times before, including as recently as January of that year, on a charge of carrying a pistol without a license. He was sentenced to 24 years in prison. Friends say the family was just starting to come to terms with the loss of their youngest child.”

8,261 and 29

Back to those numbers I mentioned earlier: 8,261 is the number of Americans – at least 8,261 and likely more  – who have died as a result of gun violence in America since the Newtown school shootings last December 14. That is an average of more than 29 gun-related deaths in the United States every day since the death of the innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary.

I’ll leave you with this, the words of Chief Medical Officer Dr. Janet Orlowski at MedStar Washington Hospital Center where the dead and wounded were taken Monday:

“I may see this every day…but there’s something wrong here, when we have these multiple shootings, these multiple injuries—there’s something wrong. The only thing I can say is, we have to work together to get rid of it. I’d like you to put my trauma center out of business. I really would. I would like to not be an expert on gunshots…We just cannot have one more shooting with so many people killed. We’ve got to figure this out. We’ve got to be able to help each other.

“So I have to say, it’s a challenge to all of us—let’s get rid of this. This is not America. This is not Washington D.C. This is not good.”

You really have to wonder what it will take.

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