Last night I spent an hour watching a documentary that included some footage from the civil rights movement. It offered a short clip of Dr. Martin Luther King saying at what appeared to be a press conference that it was his request that President Kennedy sign an executive order declaring segregation illegal. At the time he made this statement, President Kennedy was under great pressure to advance civil rights without threatening his own chances for re-election with southern Democrat voters who weren't sympathetic to the plights of African-American citizens. Kennedy said, in what was perhaps his most important address, "This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened."
The potential for true inspiration never expires. Forty-six years later, I come from a generation with a great apathy towards civil rights, yet these two statements, from two men on totally different sides of the country - from polar opposite regional, socioeconomic, and racial backgrounds - caused an introspective inquiry rare from someone born just months shy of the election of Ronald Reagan.
A southern white girl can watch a video of civil rights protests in 2009 and have a hard time conceptualizing that it was even possible that this happened in her fathers' lifetime. These things attribute to the Kennedy legacy. Sometimes saying the things that aren't easy to say makes the biggest impact. Those of my generation - we may be called Gen Y or Gen X - often smile about our otherwise perfect role models. Parents and grandparents who worked and sacrificed and taught us our values but in their deepest, darkest moments harbored prejudices that would keep us up at night if we knew the full extent of them. These prejudices don't make them evil, they're not harbored by one particular race or gender or sex - but they are prejudices that are so ingrained from childhood that years of change and tolerance have only dimmed them and taught them when may or may not be acceptable to give them voice.
Those of my generation that believed in the ideals of which Barack Obama spoke, campaigned tirelessly on his behalf. The fact that he was black was irrelevant to most. Perhaps the fact that we were apathetic to his race is the most powerful testament to the work of Dr. King, President Kennedy, and later, the work of President Johnson - who so bravely championed civil rights further than any President before. Once it was noble to be tolerant; now it's just repulsive to not be.
These days, it's no longer acceptable to be brazenly racist. There are certain symbols that are explainable in mainstream society - pictures or phrases that are explainable enough to those who want to believe the explanation but portray the message clear enough to those who see it for what it is; a confederate flag; words and phrases like thug, welfare queen, ghetto rat - offensive to those honest enough to admit what they are but vague enough for those who wish to remain in denial. These are the ambiguous phrases that divide our society.
We, as a generation, must acknowledge and reject these antiquated racist symbols and phrases. They are ghosts of an America past that too many have fought and sacrificed to see acknowledged as anything other than a shameful picture or paragraph in a history book.