For Martin Luther King, Jr.’s national holiday, my kids and I toured seven National Park Service sites. They illustrated the truth of Dr. King’s wisdom that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
We began our tour of the National Park Service (NPS) sites atop Lookout Mountain at the Chattanooga & Chickamauga National Military Park, the nation’s first such park. The Battle of Chickamauga occurred in the fall of 1863. Second only to the Battle of Gettysburg in the number of casualties, the Confederate Army beat back the Union Army to Chattanooga, only to then be beaten there by General Grant and the Union Army.
Our first day ended at the southern end of Lookout Mountain, visiting the Little River Canyon National Preserve. Carved through the millennia, it offered beautiful views of steep canyon walls and waterfalls.
Our second day was really the point of our travel southward on MLK weekend: to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, Georgia. There my children learned of the segregation Dr. King was raised in and fought against during his relatively short, and remarkably impactful, thirteen years as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. We also attended Sunday services at Dr. King’s home church, Ebenezer Baptist, where a member gave an interpretive rendering of Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Afterwards, we relaxed at the Chattahoochee River and Recreation Area. That evening we would spend with my colleague at the National Center and our friend and board member with Down Syndrome Affiliates in Action. For the first time, all of our children would meet each other and hang out together.
On our last day, the actual MLK Holiday, we would visit three sites. The first was Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park. There, like at Chickamauga, the Confederates had withstood an assault by the Union. And, there, like Chattanooga, the Union army would move to a new location from which Gen. Sherman launched his burning of Atlanta and March to the Sea.
Returning northward, we stopped at Russell Cave National Memorial near Bridgeport, Alabama. A secluded site, the cave had served as a shelter for Native Americans dating back 9,000 years ago.
Our final stop was Stones River National Battlefield, near Mufreesboro, Tennessee. And, again, it was a sight where, initially, the Confederates withstood an assault by the Union Army on New Year’s Eve, 1862, only to then lose the battle two days later. While not the greatest number of casualties, the battle had the highest percentages of casualties, making it the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.
On the drive home, as the children napped from the long and busy weekend, I had time to reflect on all that we had seen, read, and learned.
The Battle of Stones River was at the end of 1862. The fight would continue in 1863 at Chattanooga and Chickamauga. In 1864, the Battle at Kennesaw Mountain was one of the last, brief victories, before the Confederacy surrendered the following year. Here was a war waged over what historians list as several reasons, but for most of us boils down to whether slavery would be allowed to persist or not. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, freeing all slaves in Confederate states and the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865 abolishing all slavery. The 14th Amendment, guaranteeing due process and equal protection to all people was ratified in 1968.
Yet, one hundred years later, in 1963 was when Dr. King delivered his “I Have A Dream” Speech on the National Mall. Bloody Sunday at the Selma to Montgomery March happened in 1965. Dr. King was assassinated in 1968.
The lessons from each site showed the wisdom of Dr. King’s words that the arc of history does bend towards justice, but it is indeed long.
The work that I and the colleagues I enjoyed dinner with on Sunday night as our children played together is what I’ve considered our own civil rights effort: recognizing the equality and dignity of individuals with Down syndrome and other labeled conditions.
I began this work in 2007 after attending the very first Down Syndrome Affiliates in Action conference. It was held soon after ACOG had announced a change in its guidelines so that all women were to be offered prenatal testing for Down syndrome. Many wish to focus their arguments on abortion, as it is the most chosen option following a prenatal diagnosis. Through the work, research, and conversations I’ve had with colleagues, healthcare providers, and expectant and new parents, my concern became working towards administering prenatal testing in a fair, unbiased way that supports parents with accurate information about the health status of their pregnancy and new child.
But, like any advocacy work, burnout happens.
I’m sure those who have worked with me and have been involved with their local Down syndrome organization and/or the national efforts can picture the faces of colleagues who once were doing the work but have since moved on to other endeavors. We all understand that moving on and view it without judgment, but empathy and, sometimes, jealousy.
Being told no by laboratories when offering them free copies of materials ACOG and other organizations list as approved resources for patients, having legislators get that dull look as they think how much longer before they can end the meeting without committing to providing equitable funding for patient information, and, having fellow parents and advocates attack you publicly and behind your back–well, it can all be exhausting, frustrating, and disheartening.
Such is the human way and how every struggle goes.
Dr. King was stabbed at a book signing by a deranged woman. His house in Montgomery was bombed while he was at church. A rock was thrown through the window of the car he was in while here in my hometown of Louisville. The FBI tapped his phone lines. When a bill was proposed to honor his legacy with a national holiday, Senator Jesse Helms from North Carolina had delivered to every senator printed pages of the transcripts from those taps, an act which drew the condemnation by Sen. Moynihan on the Senate floor. The pastor at Ebenezer had to call out the maligning by President-elect Trump of Rep. John Lewis, who was at Bloody Sunday, for saying Rep. Lewis was “all talk and no action,” reacting to Rep. Lewis’ decision to not attend the inauguration ceremony.
Given this long arc, it is doubtful that any of us working right now will see a world where every obstetrician, genetic counselor, medical geneticist, genetic testing laboratory representative, and every expectant parent sees prenatal testing for all that it only is, information, and all of that information, including what life can be like with the tested-for condition, will be accurately described and relayed in word and written material to the new family.
So, instead, we should also keep in mind those who buttressed history’s long arc so that it would bend towards justice.
Standing like a Rock
Pictured to the right, the trapezoidal stone structure is the oldest Civil War monument in its original location, having been erected in 1863 by Union troops. It commemorates Hazen’s Brigade’s stand in the 1862 Battle of Stones River. Hazen’s Brigade was the only spot on the Union line not to give way to the Confederates. This, despite fighting in a position that would be known as “Hell’s Half-Acre” for the half-acre of carnage between the Union and Confederate lines.
At the 1863 Battle of Chickamauga, the Confederates broke through the Union line and were attacking the Union from its rear–decidedly the worst position to be in as a troop as the Union army retreated northward. The Union Army may have been overrun and not lived to win the later battle at Chattanooga if not for General George Henry Thomas. General Thomas, a Virginian who chose to serve with the Union, had also held a line at Stones River months earlier. At Chickamauga, Commanding General Rosencrans dispatched future president James Garfield to order Thomas to retreat. Thomas refused the order on the grounds they’d be overtaken by the Confederates. Garfield reported to Rosencrans that Thomas was “standing like a rock,” holding off the Confederate assault. He would become known as “The Rock of Chickamauga.”
Finally, of course, there is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The day before he was murdered, he gave a sermon prophetically speaking to how he would not make it to the promised land of equality he had been fighting for. He was arrested over 30 times–being arrested in Montgomery at the start of the bus boycott for driving 30 mph in a 25 mph zone. In contrast to the army generals, Dr. King chose non-violence as his method of fighting oppression. His position would be criticized by fellow African-American movement leaders and he would face physical assault. Yet, like Hazen’s Brigade, like the Rock of Chickamauga, he did not waver and he held the line.
Through these stalwart efforts is how the arc of history bends in the direction of justice instead of injustice.
Let us ever remember that we shall overcome because the arc bends toward justice. And let us be granted the strength to buttress that arc so that there will be justice in the end.