THE BLOG
12/11/2014 03:07 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2015

'Last One in the Water Is the Mayor!'

Edna Branch Jackson was a young lady in the '60s. She spent the night in jail after a "wade-in" at a whites-only beach on Tybee Island outside of Savannah, Georgia. She and five friends wore bathing suits under their clothes, walked down to the beach, stripped down quickly and ran for the water.

"Sometimes you made it, and sometimes you didn't."

That day, police officers grabbed her before she got to the water. As if her black skin could contaminate the whole ocean. "We just sang freedom songs until we could get out of jail."

Edna Branch Jackson is now Mayor Edna Branch Jackson, mayor of Savannah, Georgia. Imagine the victory. Whatever you think of them, the protesters of today might be the leaders of tomorrow. You best listen.

We stayed last night in a community called "The Landings" on Skidaway Island, also just outside Savannah. It's one of the most affluent communities in the U.S., and one of the largest gated communities in the U.S.. There are six golf courses on the property.

Our hostess in this subdivided utopia lived in Lithuania when she was four. The Russians had pounded the Germans. The Germans brought tanks in on trains to help their army retreat. In short order, the Russians would be there to take control.

Her father was a teacher. The Russians were "relocating" anyone with property or an education. A German soldier told her father that the unloaded train was going back to Germany. It was their last chance to leave Lithuania on their own terms.

They took what they could carry onto the train. They lived in refugee camps in Germany. They were in Berlin when it fell.

When she was 10, her family made it into the United States under a law that allowed two hundred thousand displaced persons to immigrate from Europe. She grew up and turned the medicine closet of a hospital in a northern Illinois farm town into a real pharmacy. She and her husband, who built and ran the small town's drugstore, retired and moved to The Landings, wherein he could play golf in the winter. "Or do anything in the winter besides slip and fall."

I suspect that people who leave everything thing they have behind and then work really hard in their new communities have a distinct economic advantage. Is that why we're so afraid of them? Will the immigrants of today be living in the country's most elite neighborhoods in 60 years? Can I refill your coffee, ma'am?

As we drove into Savannah yesterday, we circled the cloverleaf from the highway. Looking into the brush, we saw a tent city. Tarps. Corrugated tin. I asked around town about it. There are two camps, one on each side of town. They grow in the winter as the wanderers come south. The City of Savannah has expanded their trash pickup to the camps. Once a week, they drive out and collect the garbage. No one could remember a time when anyone forced them to move, but everyone seemed to remember groups of people going out there to help clean up.

Americans love to talk about our history as if we passed some laws and fixed our culture. We love to wave our successes like a flag. But the flag is waving over the tent city, a few miles from a subdivision with six golf courses. No wonder there's a gate.

The flag is draped over a new mass grave of black bodies. The flag is pulled back from a place where we tortured prisoners for nothing. Still there are political "leaders" who are defending the horror, including Senator Isakson of this state from where I typed this paragraph. He claims we gathered important intelligence. He calls the latest report "politically motivated." Only a seasoned politician could pack so much irony and hubris into two words.

The flag flies over privately owned prisons filled with the hostages of "the war on drugs." The drugs are still going strong. This is a war on people. All wars are wars on people.

We're driving today to Charleston, South Carolina, once the richest city in America, built on the backs of enslaved and tortured people. Piled high on the dead bodies thrown overboard in the Atlantic crossing. I wonder if Senator Isakson thinks it was worth all the human suffering to get an important city out of it.

As we drove in on highway 17, I looked over and saw a man on crutches leaning on his car, talking on his phone. His blinkers were on. His spare tire was on the ground along with some scattered tools. He was stuck half in the turn lane. Four lanes of traffic howled by him.

I couldn't drive by that. I made a u-turn a half mile down and came back. We pulled up behind him, turned our blinkers on, and got out to help. His name was Marcus. Coincidentally, he broke his leg in a car accident. "Let's not have another one," I said as I pulled the caps off the lugs.

He tried to help and I told him to take it easy. Paul came out and jacked up the car. We changed the tire and packed everything back in the trunk. Marcus sprayed our hands with Windex while we rubbed them together. I gave him a CD and signed it. As I shook his hand for the last time, I caught sight of a tarnished coin on the ground.

It was a nickel commemorating the Louisiana Purchase, when Europeans living on stolen land bought more stolen land from other Europeans, which led to a debate about legally owning human beings in the new territory, which led to the Missouri Compromise, effectively repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a move that inspired the creation of the Republican Party, from which Lincoln emerged as the first Republican president. By the time the Civil War was over, the former Louisiana Territory had effectively been ethnically cleansed of Native Americans, all behind the scenes of the other drama that had dominated the American consciousness.

Breathtaking. What an insane country. I admit I still love it. But what's happening behind the scenes right now? The Indian Wars are still raging, for one. Pipelines. Mining. Sacred land.

Also on the nickel was the original, unofficial United States motto. "E Pluribus Unum." From many, one. Not to be controversial, but I think it's a better motto than "In God We Trust." Would God want His name on our money? Whose God? What's God going to do about these homeless people? What's God going to do about making our police accountable for their crimes? What's God going to do about climate change? Answer: nothing. It's up to us to come together. From many, one.

We've come a long way. We have a long way to go. When we talk about history, let's not forget to include current events. Let's not forget that we are the history of the future. That's how we gather important intelligence. Just ask Mayor Edna Branch Jackson.