The Department of Labor recently reported the unemployment rate as rising to 14.7% during the month of April. Of a population of about 330 million people in the U.S., that’s at least 48 million citizens out of work over these last few weeks.
The numbers suggest long and difficult days ahead for people from literally all walks of life; whether white, black, gay or heterosexual, christian or muslim, immigrant or citizen, or younger or older, effectively everyone and their mom has been affected by a disaster which few of us could have anticipated only two months ago, when reports of the coronavirus began to break news.
If we were preparing for the future, as in, for the 21st century still ahead, I am certain there is much we could achieve with 48 million Americans–and more who will accrue–in need of a new safety net, pastime and direction.
A brief glance at the past during similar turning points for the American project can provide readers some clarity about the present moment. Here are just three quotes from other extraordinary times when the goal was still to look forward:
In 1932, when at the height of the great depression a quarter of Americans were unemployed, Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of getting ‘back to work’ with a renewed purpose:
Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits.”
In 1961, during the throes of the Cold War, or the fight against liberty-bashing ‘communism’, John F. Kennedy spoke of fighting alongside people all over the world against ills affecting all nations:
Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out…a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.
In 1965, one week after Alabama state troopers attacked Martin Luther King jr and a group of protesters in Selma, Alabama, for marching for the right to vote, in a joint-session to Congress, Lyndon B. Johnson reflected on the great power suddenly placed into his hands, and how his memories as a “small-time” college teacher in Texas guided his decision over how to apply that power:
My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Tex., in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could speak English, and I couldn’t speak much Spanish. My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry. They knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them. But they knew it was so, because I saw it in their eyes. I often walked home late in the afternoon, after the classes were finished, wishing there was more that I could do. But all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew, hoping that it might help them against the hardships that lay ahead. Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.
I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country. But now I do have that chance—and I’ll let you in on a secret—I mean to use it.”
These words may be from a different time, but on closer inspection, they don’t feel extraordinarily removed from our own. In the days ahead, we will continue documenting and sharing to inform and uplift Los Angeles.
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