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Looking Back on the Year of JFK and MLK, and On to Another Year of Exhaustive Storytelling

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It has become a ritual -- an annual imperative -- for my friend David Barr and me. At some point leading up to the end of December, or shortly after the beginning of January, we raise our glasses and drink a toast (or, four, maybe).

"To exhaustion."

The whole thing began eight years ago. Top of Chicago's Hancock Tower. Bellied up to the bar, just one floor up from the storied Signature Room. Doing what writers do. Shooting whiskey. Talking game. Then, as we were going through our Sankofa thing -- looking back, looking forward, comparing notes on the projects we had completed, the ones that were coming up that year -- Dave, an award-winning Chicago-based playwright, paused for a moment. Caressing his glass, gazing through the 96th floor curtain wall, drinking in the forever view, out across the nightscape footlights, toward the horizon and its promise of possibilities.

"You know what I want?" He turned back to me in that afterglow of revelation. "I want to go to bed every night, exhausted."

In an instant, I knew exactly what he meant. And I knew exactly what I wanted. What I wanted was exactly what he meant. To go to bed exhausted, knowing I would have given everything I possibly could have given to the day, to some purpose that made sense of the day, that made it mean something. To go to bed exhausted, collapsing in sleep, only to recharge, renew overnight, and then reawaken the next day, ready to start all over again, exhausting myself.

Nothing can be more satisfying to a writer -- a journalist -- than to know you have used every resourceful ounce of your ability in a perpetual cycle of evocative storytelling.

We drank to that idea -- Dave and I -- to that pledge. There in the Hancock Signature Lounge. Appropriate place for such a declaration. Provocative and enduring. We drank to it then and every year since then, each time rededicating ourselves to producing impacting work. Creative work with social content. Stories we hope will move people in important and meaningful ways.

For Dave, this means developing plays with both historical and contemporary significance. For me, it means producing works of journalism with that kind of meaningful context -- context that provides deeper public understanding of important contemporary issues and future challenges at the intersection of race and media and justice.

The point for both of us is to provide something that ultimately might lead to more enlightened public choice making on some of the most compelling issues of the moment. This moment. The next one. And the one after that one.

That is not to say that our annual ritual is all serious all the time. Hardly. Anything can be served up between rounds of scotch or bourbon or gin or vodka or wine or beer. Anything. Even arguably frivolous things. Like noting all the new 49ers fans in Chicago, now that San Francisco took the Packers through the cheese grater. Like whether the big winner of precious metal at this year's Winter Olympics in Sochi might be Katy Perry with her "Roar" anthem. (The Olympians can dream all they want about gold, but she's going for platinum. And royalties to eclipse the crown jewels!)

More often, though, the talk is, well, more sobering. Like whether those same Russian Olympics might be marred by discrimination in an atmosphere of institutionalized homophobia, or by ethnic profiling in an atmosphere of edgy anti-terrorism.

This time, though, our point of departure for reflection and discussion (not to mention a few more raised glasses) was the commemorative year just ended. And the one just beginning. The past year was one of significant anniversaries, a period of reflection on promises made and promises broken; remembrances of moments of great hope and terrible despair.

It was a year that began with the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, and, sadly, the 50th anniversary of the late Alabama Governor George Wallace's inaugural gauntlet: "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Both events in the month of January. An ironic juxtaposition. A reminder of America's historical schizophrenia: the promise of freedom, the denial of equality.

There were other stark contrasts in this year of remembering. The 50th anniversary of the June 1963 assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, a murder, occurring on the very night President John F. Kennedy declared in his acclaimed televised civil rights speech that the country would "not be fully free until all its citizens are free."

Last year was one in which we recalled how Dr. Martin Luther King stirred the imagination 50 years ago with his vision of a time when people would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, or -- by extension -- the line of their heritage, or their path to the Divine, or the way they were hard-wired at birth. But then, only weeks after the world embraced that dream, there was the horrific awakening on an early Sunday morning: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing young Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley.

Finally, this past year closed with our reflection on the 50th anniversary of the November 22, 1963 assassination of President Kennedy. Curious that, even with the extensive televised post mortem of the JFK assassination and Warren Commission investigation of the killing, a vital part of the story seems to have gotten buried. For, with the tragic death of Camelot came the birth of a new decade. After all, the 1960s as we have come to define it -- in the analytical framework historians call "periodization" -- that period of "the '60s" didn't really start in 1960. Instead, it began somewhere along the timeline of Kennedy's death in late 1963 and "Beatlemania" in early 1964 and the publication of the Warren Commission Report on the Kennedy assassination later in 1964.

Set against the soundtrack of a more inclusive and evolving pop music, the American narrative was transformed with the counter culture development of alternative thinking and approaches to social issues. It also led to a new cultural cynicism, one that carried with it an increasing willingness to question assumptions and institutions and accepted norms. There was the assumption of American exceptionalism. There were the once-trusted institutions of our society--the government, the media, the church, the schools -- that had advanced that assumption, while failing to challenge the accepted norms that undermined it. Accepted norms like segregation and sexism, that had been characterized as a "way of life" in the euphemism of marginalization. Immutable, "...now...tomorrow...forever."

That is why if there is a theme that emerges from this past year of commemoration (and, of course, a storyteller always has to nail the theme), the point of it all, the connecting link, the take-away is an appreciation of the responsibility of leadership. The responsibility and the consequences.

For example, there arguably is a connection between George Wallace's divisive inaugural address in Montgomery, Alabama, at the beginning of 1963 and the September bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, where some local police were reputed to be Klan sympathizers, if not members. Similarly, the angry separatist rhetoric of U.S. Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi (vowing to fight "to the death" the enforcement of the 1955 Supreme Court "with all deliberate speed" order in Brown v. Board of Education) can't be detached from the racial violence in that state, where Chicago teen Emmett Till was lynched in 1955 and where Medgar Evers -- whose first NAACP assignment had been to investigate the Till killing -- was murdered in 1963.

In the Southern reign of terror of the time, African American life was devalued through both the unambiguous and the coded language of political rhetoric (fight "to the death"). People like Wallace and Eastland incited when they could have inspired. They enabled when they could have elevated. As a result, some White people were led to believe they could get away with murder if the victim was Black. And, too often, they did. On the other hand, the more inclusive language of JFK (irrespective of his inability to move his Civil Rights Bill through the Southern-dominated Congress) and the visionary language of MLK moved people to see the world differently, encouraged them to make that vision a reality.

It is the failure of leadership, the failure to help us recognize the continuing effects of past structural racism that must be considered as we navigate our way to a more just society. Individual leadership will be important, as we become more open to seeing the commonality of our experience, as well as our stake in that recognition, rather than holding onto the divisiveness that has characterized recent discourse.

Media leadership is vital, too, in breaking out of the echo chamber of the 24-7 news cycle. Enterprise, curiosity, critical assessment form the path to the enriching untold story. At least the journey down this path can lead to enough fresh information and untapped perspective to turn stories we thought we knew into those that truly become new, if only in their completeness. Getting there requires a fuller appreciation of the context -- structurally and historically--of the stories that we write, particularly in the area of social justice. In the end, it will mean the fulfillment of our social responsibility.

These are the types of issues we will confront in the commemorative year ahead -- arguably the 50th anniversary of the beginning of that period we have come to know as the '60s.

My friend David Barr will take up the challenge with several projects he's got lined up, including an historical play on Viola Liuzzo, the White Detroit mother who was murdered in Alabama shuttling Black activists during the Selma voter registration demonstrations of 1965. Among other things, I will develop a dramatic adaptation of the book I wrote with the late Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, exploring new dimensions of that compelling story of the American experience.

Just some of the things we talked about -- Dave and I -- between shots and double shots (this year at Bar Louie in Hyde Park), in the wake of the blizzard that hit Chiberia last week, on the cusp of this week's "Arctic Vortex." It's all part of the annual imperative. Weathering the storms. Determined. Undeterred. We're writers, after all. At the drop of a snowflake, we tend to go postal. Reciting the creed. Neither snow, nor rain, nor last call will keep us from our rounds. Another chance to put 'em up, to make that pledge, to rededicate, to recommit to wearing ourselves out, getting two hours of enrichment out of every hour we are given. Making a difference. Raising compelling issues. Answering the questions. And, as they say, questioning the answers. Exhausting the possibilities. And ourselves. Draining the glasses. And then, refilling them.

Cheers!

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