Washington, D.C. is on my mind again – this time as the inspirational touchstone of our history. I feel a need to make another visit: to crisscross the city, to recalibrate my historical bearings – and to experience renewed awe for this great country into which I had the incredible, albeit random, good fortune to be born.
I would begin at the National Archives to review the documents that started it all, rereading: “when in the course of human events,” that bold list of reasons, and the solemn declaration: “that these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.” I would view the newly-designed plan of a government by: “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union” with clarifications in the “further declaratory and restrictive clauses” of the Bill of Rights.
At the Washington Monument, I would pay homage to the President whose countrymen considered him “pious, just, humane, temperate…sincere…dignified and commanding,” and then revel in the serenity of the Jefferson Memorial, whose honoree authored this inscription: “all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.”
I would climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to honor the man who led our fractured country through its most challenging struggle, guided by his deep sense of morality and urging “malice toward none…charity for all…to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
How appropriate that marchers in 1963 gathered under Lincoln’s gaze to share in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of equality for marginalized citizens. And who better than Lincoln to preside over the memorials to fallen soldiers of war?
The Korean War Veterans Memorial depicts a squad on patrol during this war often referred to as “forgotten.” Ironically, its cease-fire remains the heavily-fortified demilitarized zone on the Korean Peninsula whose still-unresolved issues frequently dominate headlines.
And there is the eloquent impact of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, with the names of 58,000 fellow citizens lost to a war whose challenges continue to influence ongoing debates about responsibility at home and abroad.
Before stopping at the National World War II Memorial, I would recall the President who led America out of the Great Depression and through that war that enveloped the globe. Franklin Roosevelt used the social media of his day – his fireside chats – to connect with and encourage Americans gathered around their radios.
Shared with his fellow citizens: “We are going to make a country in which no one is left out,” and “I never forget that I live in a house owned by all the American people.”
From his memorial inscription, however, I understand the essence of FDR’s leadership: “We have faith that future generations will know that here, in the middle of the twentieth century, there came a time when men of good will found a way to unite…and fight to destroy the forces of ignorance and intolerance…”
Another must-visit site would be the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum where a pile of shoes and walls of family photographs bear witness to the Nazi scourge of brutal fascism, with its racist thugs chanting epithets by torchlight, that wiped out a generation of European Jews. Even as Allied soldiers waged victorious war, they liberated camps maniacally-devised to murder the “racially-impure.” I would exit the museum in speechless contemplation of incomprehensible historical events occurring only seven decades ago.
I would be more than honored to visit the memorial dedicated to the Greatest Generation. My father, who served his country in Germany and Austria, typified the young people who were drafted, trained, and deployed to follow orders and make the world safe for democracy – before coming home to make a good life for their families.
My father was never able to visit “his” memorial during one of the Honor Flights planned by grateful countrymen, although I am not sure he would have understood all the “fuss.” And yet, I owe my full, satisfying life to the efforts and sacrifices of my dad and other soldiers like him.
Finally, I would stand at the gravesites of the Kennedy brothers to be inspired by Robert Kennedy’s words of social conscience: “…human history is shaped each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others…” and John Kennedy’s clarion call to every next generation of Americans: “Let the word go forth from this time and place to friend and foe alike that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans…we shall pay any price – bear any burden – meet any hardship – support any friend – oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Concerned as I am about the current issues challenging our nation, I trust my visit to Washington would reinforce my faith in our country. I hope that my visit would remind me of the difficult times and those who made the hard decisions through more than two hundred years of our country’s existence and growth.
Finally, I like to think that my time in Washington would spur me to redouble my efforts as a citizen. Yes, it takes work to be a good citizen. But preceding generations toiled tirelessly to create the worthy legacy and storied heritage so evident whenever I visit our nation’s capital. In the 21st century we must do no less for the generations to follow.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.