As we celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr., recently, my mind went back to where I was fifty years ago. An angry young man in my senior year at Cornell University. There was no King holiday then, as King had been assassinated just the previous year. Mentally and emotionally I was prepared to be one of those African Americans who would meet my destiny in a struggle against oppression and injustice that was much bigger than any one of us, and even much bigger than all of us. I thought we were the generation fingered by history to draw the line on America’s ill treatment of African Americans. It had to stop with us, in our time.
Fifty years ago, America was still in the midst of a battle to secure equal treatment for African Americans in public accommodations, employment, housing, voting, and other civil rights. I remember as a child traveling with my family through southern states like Virginia and North Carolina, and my father stopping at gas stations where, before purchasing gas, he asked if we would be allowed to use the restrooms. Many Americans today forget that this country practiced that kind of segregation. Similarly, at that time African Americans were routinely denied employment opportunities simply because of race. Qualifications did not matter. Many Americans today forget that this country practiced that kind of discrimination. De jure segregation was enshrined in the law, and de facto institutional discrimination was the social norm in America.
The petty discrimination of being denied access to public facilities was intended to dehumanize African Americans, and to proclaim every day that we were different and inferior. And the systemic institutional denial of economic opportunities was intended to ensure that African Americans remained poor and powerless. And each previous decade as you step back through American history was typically more brutal towards African Americans.
But the purpose of reciting this history is not just to remind us of where we have been, but also to focus on how far we have come. It is important to know history, and to understand how the world we live in has been shaped by the past, but it is equally important not to be a prisoner of history. By that I mean there is no point in suffocating our potential for today and tomorrow with ongoing animosity over the grievances of the past. The burden is too heavy. Many racial, ethnic or religious groups have some plausible basis for resentment and animosity about some historical injustice. The historical injustices are not all morally equivalent, but it’s unlikely that we will ever achieve societal consensus on their relative hierarchy. So just as a family cannot heal unless it lets go of yesterday’s anger, so all Americans of every race and creed and ethnicity must be open to reconciliation and healing. If we don’t let go of our racial and social resentments, America will not achieve its potential as a multiracial, multiethnic, and religiously diverse democracy wherein all citizens live in freedom and civic equality.
It seems to me undeniable that African Americans, other minorities, women, and the LGBT community have educational, economic, and social opportunities available today which are unprecedented in American history. Does this mean that our country has overcome all its problems? Of course not! The legacy of hundreds of years of slavery, and physical as well as psychological abuse and neglect, created a scale of human misery and dysfunctionality which cannot be reversed in just fifty years. But is America moving in the direction of becoming the country envisioned in its noble founding documents – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights – unequivocally yes!
When I left Cornell in 1972 after completing a graduate degree, I committed to living in accordance with Dr. King’s creed – I would choose my friends and associates based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. That’s a decision I’ve never regretted.
Thomas W. Jones is author of the forthcoming, From Willard Straight to Wall Street: A Memoir. He is the founder and senior partner of venture capital investment firm TWJ Capital. He previously served as Chief Executive Officer of Global Investment Management at Citigroup; Vice Chairman, President, and COO at TIAA-CREF; ad Senior Vice-President and Treasurer at John Hancock Insurance Company.