Far be it from a Georgian to welcome the shift from spring — the pastels of our azaleas, the dewy infields of our T-ball fields before early Saturday games, the blackberry winter nights that send us back to our closets one last time for our fleece jackets — to summer. Summer in Georgia: the wavy shimmer of heat rising off the asphalt; the damp fabric sticking to our lower backs; the hurry-up-already pleas to our A/C units.
But then, it’s been a pretty awful spring, one jarring event after another.
And I don’t know if a change in the calendar can produce a change in the air. Temperatures are rising in all respects; you’ve seen the news. We’re in the midst of another episode of black Americans dying needlessly in plain sight, and our black friends and neighbors weary of mourning silently.
The accumulated weight of these tragedies has been hard for me — I’ll only speak for myself — to comprehend. I pick each one up like a stone, look at it, frown, and set it back down. To hear my black friends tell it, they feel all of them, hurled like stones, causing bruises that never quite heal. Or worse.
The weight of time and injustices past, restraining one’s progress like a parachute tied to a runner’s waist, is something I don’t fully understand. I’m trying, because I’m in the business of fixing problems and unblocking opportunities, and that requires seeing each problem and obstacle in full and in context.
An unexpected headline this week helped me see how the past and present can commingle.
“Last Person to Receive a Civil War-Era Pension Dies,” it read. Irene Triplett, 90, of Wilkesboro, North Carolina, passed away May 31. Her father — I repeat, her father — fought first for the Confederacy, then for the Union. Mose Triplett was 83 when Irene was born in 1930 to his 34-year-old wife.
America turns 244 next month; the span from Mose’s birth to Irene’s death was 173 years. Between them, father and daughter saw 70% of our nation’s history.
That’s shocking, but not unique. The last known Civil War widow died just 12 years ago. Materials on the website of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War list 26 living children of Union veterans as of October 2013; at least four (including two brothers!) were still living as of August 2016. Those numbers don’t include Confederate soldiers’ children. Or either side’s grandchildren. Or the descendants of slaves.
This is stunning news to those of us whose parents could have fought in Vietnam — or Iraq. But they go to show how many living ties there are to eras most of us thought long dead. And we need not look that far into the past to find events that shaped families for generations, if only in the stories they tell and the admonitions they deliver. This will only be more true as life expectancies expand.
The implications of all this are thorny. But whatever our own race and history, we can agree on the desperate and urgent need to bring an end to the travesties of justice that grow increasingly incendiary. We can pursue justice by rethinking qualified immunity for police officers who abuse their authority, an idea that unites such philosophically divergent jurists as Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor. We can pursue opportunity by ensuring children can choose the best education for them, another idea with supporters on the left and the right.
These and other changes will take time to alter lives. For now, we can listen.
“Demonstrations” are intended to demonstrate. But what? Frustration. Lack of resolution. A strong suspicion the wheels of justice wouldn’t have even begun moving for George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery if their slayings hadn’t been captured on video. The reasonable conclusion that too few outside their communities would pay attention otherwise.
Life is at once too short and too long not to strive to end this episode differently.
Dalton native Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation (www.georgiapolicy.org).