There are times in our nation’s history when the “whole world is watching“. When we are very fortunate, brave Americans step forward, such as in South Carolina last week, and demonstrate how great our country can be.
The world is increasingly filled with terror and violence. We see people beheaded, burned, and bombed, targeted because they were of the wrong religion or race. That horror came to America on June 17th in historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina. An assassin, wrapped if only symbolically in the flag of slavery and racial hatred, murdered nine African Americans as they worshiped.
The relatives of the martyrs did not respond in turn with hate or anger or call for violent retaliation. Rather at the court proceeding, one by one they displayed the courage of their faith and with a peace exceeding all understanding they forgave the murderer. Governor Haley and US Senator Graham and the good people of South Carolina then mirrored their grace and courage. Governor Haley called for the flag that had spewed hatred to be taken down and no longer flown on State Capitol grounds. Her call echoed throughout the South, as other governors called for the demise of that flag.
In midst of all the horror in the world, from Charleston, South Carolina came the sound of church bells ringing and people singing in prayer. There were no riots, no guns, nor fires. And, “the whole world was watching”.
There is a Peace Corps story as a footnote here, as there almost always is. When President Kennedy was assassinated, my Peace Corps partner and I had been in our site less than a month. In the vernacular of the Colombian campo, we were flojas; “goof-offs, lazy and inept. We had not really met our community. They didn’t know us and we didn’t know them.
When the teenagers waving their transistors ran to tell us “Castro had killed Kennedy,” we did not cry or expressed any fear for the safety of our families back in the states. People viewed us with apprehension because we were not afraid. Colombia was still recovering from more than ten years of “La Violencia,” in which 200,000 had been killed in senseless domestic political fighting. It had all begun with the assassination of a popular, young politician in Bogota in 1948. People in our town had lost friends and relatives to “La Violencia”.
The priest encouraged my partner and I to leave town and go into Popayan, the capital, which we did. We returned that Tuesday. Attitudes had changed. People were kind towards us. Much later, the priest explained what had happened. Everyone had been very suspicious of us precisely because we were not afraid for the safety of our families back in the United States. The consensus grew that we were not Americans, but Russians, and that the communists had killed Kennedy and even then were taking over America. We had been sent to take over their town. Some were planning to kill us.
So what had happened to change their minds and welcome us? Certainly, nothing we had done. Newspapers had arrived the day after the President’s funeral. On the front page was the iconic photo of Mrs. Kennedy standing, publicly on the steps of St. Matthew’s cathedral with Caroline as John John saluted the coffin of his fallen father. Who knows at what price Mrs. Kennedy and her children displayed such public grace.
What I know is that the “whole world was watching“. In our town, people concluded that if Mrs. Kennedy was not afraid to bring her young children out in public, days after she held the broken head of her murdered husband in her lap, then maybe the lack of fear in the new Peace Corps Volunteers in town made some sense. Maybe we really were Americans, after all.
In those sad days, Americans, through their grief, buried their President and gave their allegiance to President Johnson. There were no riots, no soldiers, and no tanks in the streets. America showed the whole world what the peaceful transfer of power meant in our democracy.
We have had riots in the streets, since then, and will sadly have them again. Indeed, the chant “the whole world is watching” came from protestors during the police riot in Chicago in 1968. But as Martin Luther King taught us and South Carolina just showed us: “The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long But It Bends Toward Justice”