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When history really does repeat itself

When history really does repeat itself

Recently someone described me as a “longtime columnist for the Smoky Mountain News,” which made me realize I’ve been sharing personal stories, revelations and anecdotes with this audience for quite a while.

My first column was published in January 2016, so by the end of 2024, I will have written for this newspaper for nine years. 

Throughout that time, I’ve told stories about personal and professional losses, transitions and achievements. I’ve offered opinions on various matters, inspiration regarding health and wellness, and many tales of motherhood. My two “little boys” are now 15 and 12, and as they get older and become more independent, it no longer feels right or fair to share stories about them unless it directly impacts my own experience as a person, mother or woman.

I’m a firm believer that authentic storytelling is the best way to feel compassion toward other humans. I want to continue writing about my life in hopes of entertaining and inspiring readers while at the same time protecting the privacy of my boys as they grow into young men.

Sometimes column topics land in my lap as if saying, “Write about me!” Other times, it’s another person or something I read that sparks an idea, but one way or another, the universe always delivers. One morning this week, I asked myself, “What should my column be about?” Minutes later, I pulled up behind a pick-up truck with a tag that said 1968, but it was written in a cryptic combination of letters and numbers in the way that license plates often are. Since I’d just sent the question about a column topic into the ether and then immediately saw the license plate, it nudged me to look into that particular year in history.

Much like this year, 1968 involved global unrest resulting in numerous demonstrations and marches across American college campuses. It was also a year of a contentious presidential election as well as the Summer Olympic Games.  It was the height of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed while standing on his balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, which further ignited fury over equal rights.

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In February 1968, police opened fire on students protesting segregation at South Carolina State University, killing three protesters and injuring 27 others. In March, approximately 15,000 Latino high school students in Los Angeles staged a walkout to demand a better education. Around that same time, 500 NYU students picketed a university-sponsored recruiting event for the Dow Chemical Company, the principal manufacturer of napalm, while hundreds of students protested at Howard University seeking a greater voice in student discipline and curriculum.

In late April, students took over five buildings on Columbia University’s campus and held a dean hostage, calling for the university to cut its ties to military research. At the Democratic National Convention in August, police and Illinois National Guardsmen go on a rampage, tear-gassing and clubbing hundreds of anti-war demonstration, journalists and bystanders, much of which was broadcast on national TV.

On the sports front, Arthur Ashe won the U.S. Open Singles Tennis Championship, becoming the first Black man to ever win a Grand Slam event. Meanwhile, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos earned Olympic gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter dash. While on the medal podium, they raised gloved fists during the national anthem to protest violence toward and poverty among Black citizens resulting in the International Olympic Committee stripping their medals the following day and sending them home.

As I went down the rabbit hole of history, it was eye opening how we the people haven’t changed very much after all these decades. At the end of the day, the fire that burns within us, both then and now, centers around power or compassion. It’s a spectrum, but essentially there are people who want control and there are people who want fairness and goodness.

I’ve had some entertaining conversations with teenagers lately who honestly wonder why they spend so much time learning history when we basically keep repeating ourselves over and over. I’ve also spoken with history teachers advocating for changes to history curriculum and a move toward current events and/or how history affects our systematic beliefs, as opposed to the old school way of teaching focused on memorizing dates of battles or names of notable politicians. Good teachers encourage students to question history and critically think about why we’re still behaving in similar ways to those who came before us.

In 1968, it was the evening news broadcast that pulled our attention from everyday life and tugged at our hearts as we watched people being killed or discriminated against. Now, we see it online 24-hours a day. It’s a lot for our ancient hearts and psyches to handle. I’m hopeful there will be a seismic shift in the way people approach things and a move away from hyperfocusing on control and power. If we don’t make changes to our approaches and philosophies, folks 50 years from now will be doing the same thing I’m doing, pondering why after so many decades, we keep doing the same thing and expecting different results.

(Susanna Shetley is a writer, editor and digital media specialist. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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