History is full of useful lessons.
There is a lot of talk in Washington, for instance, about winning the future. A brief look at our past tells us how that is done.
It was not long ago when today was uncertain and our present reality but a dream. Back then, a determined army of men and women set out to win today by changing history’s course. With their eyes on the prize and their feet marching to freedom’s beat, they helped create the present as we now know it.
Today President Obama celebrates three of these giants – Rep. John Lewis, Dr. Maya Angelo and Mr. Bill Russell — among others, by bestowing them with our country’s highest civilian honor. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is periodically awarded to a select few who made an “especially meritorious contribution” to the security or interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant endeavors.
I can not think of a better trio.
WATCH THE MEDAL OF FREEDOM CEREMONY HERE:
Last year, I had the wonderful privilege of joining Congressman John Lewis on a three-day journey back in time. Sponsored by the Faith and Politics Institute, the bipartisan pilgrimage took members of Congress, civil rights luminaries, journalists, students and many others on a tour of landmark places throughout Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma.
I was not prepared for the emotional impact — the profound sadness, quiet anger or silent tears.
There were so many moving moments: The poignant conversation with Mrs. Juanita Abernathy about the 1957 bombing that severely damaged her home; the insightful tour by Bernard Lafayette through Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park, where in 1963 firemen and police officers released a torrent of dogs and water hoses on nonviolent protesters, many of whom were kids; the sobering visit to 16th Street Baptist church, where the Ku Klux Klan planted a bomb that would kill four innocent girls preparing for Sunday’s service. A fifth girl, Ms. Sarah Collins, was also in the basement that day and shared her very personal experience with the group. (Ms. Collins lost an eye in the blast and remains partially blind.)
Perhaps nothing moved me more than marching with Congressman Lewis and thousands more over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 45th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”. It was an indescribable feeling. The songs were rich and spirited — each one full of hope and an abiding faith. The audience was as diverse as the sun was bright. I came away humbled and grateful. Very grateful.
Four decades earlier, Lewis and a more than 500 non-violent demonstrators were attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama’s state capital, to petition for voting rights. The Freedom Rider and former Chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee sustained a severe concussion that day as he, Rev. Hosea Williams, and many others were attacked with billy clubs and tear gas by state police. On March 25, with their First Amendment right to “peaceably petition their government” duly affirmed by the courts, demonstrators — now more than 25,000 — finally arrived in Montgomery.
To be sure, it takes a lot to stare down discrimination, and win. But John Lewis did just that.
And he was not alone.
At a time when black basketball players were few, Bill Russell literally changed the game. For thirteen years, he led the Boston Celtics to eleven championships and was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player five times. The first African-American to coach a major professional sports team, Russell also faced deep discrimination but he never let it break his spirit.
On Monday, Russell visited the Lincoln Memorial, where he sat some 50 years earlier as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Regarding today’s honor, a humbled Russell told Boston native and TV anchor John King, “It’s very flattering because I’ve tried to live my life doing what I think is right and for the right reasons.” He added, “one of the reasons was never to get accolades or honors.”
Through her life’s work, Dr. Maya Angelou achieved notoriety and fame, though that was never her intent. She has seemingly done it all — author, actress, dancer, producer, filmmaker, activist, educator and mom.
Perhaps most of all, she used her life’s experiences and mastery of literary parlance to inspire generations. Indeed, it was her celebrated poetry, her sassiness, her courage — often rolled into one — that captivated the masses.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Collectively, Maya Angelou, John Lewis and Bill Russell represent the very best of the American spirit. They won their future — and created a better today — with steely determination, an abiding faith, uncommon courage and a burning desire to make America true to its promise.
Their life’s work prove that a better, brighter future does not just happen. It’s ours to create.