Fifty years ago, the mayor wrote a letter to the people of 2014. It makes us wonder: What would we say to the people of the future?
At some point today, I will do something that will be appalling to my future grandchildren.
Maybe I’ll start my lawnmower, which will help me neatly manicure my grass while sending greenhouse gas-trapping fumes floating skyward. Maybe I’ll joyously eat another doughnut, adding more fat to my diet and contributing, drip-by-fatty-drip, to an obesity epidemic. Maybe I’ll lie to the guy who comes to my door trying to sell me a magazine. I’ll tell him I’m having dinner and can’t talk right now, thereby ignoring the needs of my fellow man.
In 1964, Charlotte mayor Stan Brookshire wrote a letter, excerpts of which were featured in an article from The Charlotte News. He addressed it to the mayor in 2014 and put it in a time capsule. “Charlotte, out of civic pride and social conscience,” Brookshire wrote, “has moved to correct inequalities of the past, having within the last year dropped discrimination based on color or national origin in most places of public accommodation, has extended full citizenship rights and is making progress in providing economic opportunities to all citizens on a like basis.” While most Southern cities were divided by race 50 years ago, Charlotte and its mayor decided that this would not do.
I’m not racist. I’m not friends with people who are. Neither are many people of my generation. I’d like to think it’s because I was raised the right way. I grew up in a small town in Ohio where the population is 97 percent white. But I never used that as an excuse to treat people differently just because they looked different from me.
Somehow, the sins of the past were permitted in their present. Women have had the right to vote in this country for only 94 years. Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled separate is inherently unequal, is only 60 years old. Even today, marriage rights still are in question, legal in a patchwork of states. In North Carolina, gay marriage is constitutionally banned.
Discrimination has been commonplace in the United States for as long as we’ve been a country. It’s been based on gender. It’s been based on skin color. It’s been based on sexual preference. My grandfather didn’t like the Japanese because he fought them in World War II. I never understood it. He was a good man. But he was blind to discrimination that I could plainly see.
What awful thing is our generation blind to? After the seas rise over the next hundred years, will my grandkids look back with disgust at pictures of me driving a car with a gasoline engine? With obesity leading to an explosion of diabetes, will the next generation of Markoviches cringe when they see me eating a piece of chocolate cake? Will they be angry to find out I didn’t give more to charity?
It’s nearly impossible to provide broader context to your life in the moment. How can you possibly make sense of the fact that you’re collapsing the west Antarctic ice sheet when you turn the thermostat down one degree over the summer? You’re too hot. You deal with it.
Individual decisions add up. Anybody who tries to commute from Huntersville to uptown knows that. Those individual decisions that seem so right (I deserve to live by the lake!) become big problems in the aggregate (This I-77 traffic is terrible!). Sometimes, in the case of traffic, it’s annoying. But sometimes it makes bad things socially acceptable. The excuse of the past, “well, everybody else was doing it too,” never holds up in the future.
In May, a man pried the top off a 50-year-old time capsule at the Park Terrace Theater. A crowd assembled to watch the opening. The mayor looked on, curiously. A man reached in, pulled out a metal audio reel and a key to the city. “That’s it,” he said. The crowd groaned. Stan Brookshire’s letter didn’t survive.
The paper was gone. The newsprint, over time, turned into a soggy mess. The words, as they so often do, turned from black and white into a muddled mess of gray.