James was 19 years old when he and his regiment began their 600-mile march to Gettysburg in 1862. He was 95 when he returned there for the 75th Commemoration of that battle in 1938. It seems impossible to think that James and then 2 year-old John McCain could have both attended that event.
When I realized that my sister, who is still living, had been bounced upon James’ knee, it made that ancient Civil War something brand new and very real to me. My mother‘s grandfather was a freer of slaves. What could have made him go? How did the issue of slavery have real relevance to him or to his community? And what motivated the other 360,000 northern soldiers who lost their lives…in the interest of others.
Imagine the negative impact on wives and children left behind to face the natural dangers of a world without any convenience and vulnerability to much worse. This choice was made purposefully. Was it actually undertaken to gain the freedom of strangers whose welfare had no direct impact on these men or the lives of those they loved?
I have come to understand that they were defining the nation they wanted America to exemplify. A country built on freedom.
This was a time of Nation building - by farmers and teachers and blacksmiths and barbers. Justice and righteousness were the tools of a people determined to create a civil society. Their intention was to create individual sovereignty unlike the monarchies of Europe and the rest of the world.
So how is it possible to have a conversation about race in America that is not informed by the sacrifice of those 360,000 mostly white men given to gain the freedom of slaves?
I once felt like a revolutionary when I boarded buses to walk in Washington DC with Dr. King, but I was not; anymore than those who choose now to take a knee. In a world where we are all hungry for evidence of wisdom, or even commonsense - for compassion and natural virtue, I offer this column. It will be about how human experience is altered by those serving ideas or ideals beyond their own personal needs. How real transformation is possible when communities of people join to build solutions to inequality. You will be inspired by their insight, but I also hope you’ll be empowered by them to join in building a more civil and inclusive society.
“Do not despair of our present difficulties. We believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here.” - John McCain 1936 to 20