Profiles in courage?
I’d like to share a little history with those of you who are too young to know about John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage or those of you who knew at one time but have since forgotten. Kennedy is known for having had the idea for the text, for supplying the philosophy it promulgates, and for having written the first and last chapters.
Ted Sorenson wrote most of the text and had help with research. There, however, are some factual errors in the book, and Kennedy’s father played a major role in pushing for the text to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1957.
I’ve been thinking a good bit about courage during the last few weeks, the courage to speak out when the very foundations of our democracy are being ravaged by an American president who seems to have a host of personal issues which influence his behaviors, behaviors that many American find unacceptable and would not tolerate in their locally-elected officials. We all concede that we like the economy under Trump, surging because of deregulation and tax breaks for the very wealthy and corporations. The employed who make minimum wage, work full-time and are still eligible for government benefits are, however, less happy.
Profiles in Courage awards are given to persons who’ve shown courage to take actions that might be very costly to them. You may well disagree with the list of some honorees who are given a Tiffany sterling silver lantern, modeled after the lanterns aboard the USS Constitution, in recognition of their actions and its symbol for leading us out of darkness.
We must acknowledge that no one is perfect, and we all hope we will be judged by the totality of our lives as opposed to a segment that even we might find objectionable.
I revere Sen. John McCain, a 1999 recipient for his honorable actions during the Vietnam War. I was taken aback by President Trump’s disregard for that service and his saying that he prefers those who are not captured when most of us are aware of his military deferments for education and bone spurs. Trump also made remarks to Howard Stern saying that his Vietnam War was in avoiding sexually transmitted diseases while dating. When recently President Trump’s refused to say McCain’s name when he announced a new defense bill, the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal 2019, I was embarrassed for him.
In 2001 civil rights leader Georgia Congressman John Lewis was given the Profiles in Courage Award as were the Public Servants of September 11 (NYPD, FDNY and the military) in 2002. Surely no one can dispute the 2002 award although some might question whether Lewis deserved the honor. The history of civil rights, or the lack thereof in this country, is long and shameful. Lewis is to be commended for his continuing powerful opposition to those who would keep a part of our population as second- or third-class citizens.
Courage has many faces, and all of those whom I have selected from the group of recipients have shown courage even while their bodies were assaulted: John McCain by the Viet Cong who tortured him, crushed him, bayoneted him and caused permanent injuries to his arms during his five and one-half years of confinement. Lewis received a fractured skull from a state trooper as he engaged in a non-violent protest in 1965 in the Selma to Montgomery March and was assaulted other times as well. Numbers matter as well and over 400 first responders died in the 9/11 attack and over 1,000 have since died because of exposure to toxins at Ground Zero.
In conclusion, I was taught early to speak up as my mother told stories of her childhood when she and her mother spoke out on the side of what they believed to be right. Later, I learned about our Founding Fathers and their understanding that a balance of powers is essential as they created the three branches of government: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. They realized, as do I, that perfection is impossible and any branch unchecked can result in tyranny.
Through reading our country’s history for decades, I’ve also learned that we have erred as a country, and the list is long and includes internment of Japanese American citizens in World War II, the Tuskegee syphilis experimentation on blacks ,and the turning away of Jews aboard the S.S. St. Louis who were fleeing the Holocaust. I believe in the potential we all have for changing behaviors that are cruel and immoral. We must, however, count on other to call us out, to insist that we view the error of our ways and correct them.
I am proud to be an American. I also am proud when we acknowledged our mistakes as individuals, as a country, right our wrongs, and move ahead, attempting to be our better selves.
Dr. Vivian Blevins is a Harlan County native. She has taught undergraduate and graduate students as well as prison inmates, and now teaches communication and American literature classes at Edison State Community College in Ohio. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.