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Column: Celebrate America’s history by measuring achievements

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This week I’m taking a break from my usual rantings, sometimes generously referred to as a humor column. Instead, here’s a little reflection on why one week in January gave me a lot to think about.

It began on a Friday at the Indiana State Museum, where I gazed in awe at originals of both the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. Having just seen the movie “Lincoln,” the experience was even more meaningful.

People around me were chatting about how old the documents were, but I didn’t have that sense. When I was about 6, one of my elementary school teachers invited an elderly man to speak to our class. He must have been close to 100 years old because he told us that as a child, he heard President Abraham Lincoln speak in 1862. This story is not only evidence of how old I am but also how young this country is. And the rest of my weekend was more proof of this.

The night after my visit to the museum, my wife and I attended a performance at the Indiana Repertory Theater of “Jackie and Me.” In the play, a young boy goes back in time to 1947 (the year I was born) when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball. Robinson was Rookie of the Year and won an MVP, but he couldn’t stay in a hotel or eat at a restaurant with his fellow Dodgers because of his color. That was in my lifetime — maybe yours, as well. Lincoln might have expected for a more tolerant America by the year 1947.

After the play, a panel of baseball historians detailed more specifics of the bias that Robinson faced. Dodger great Carl Erskine, a close friend of the late Robinson and now living in Indiana, informed the audience of another life-changing event in his own life.

At the end of Carl’s professional baseball career, his wife, Betty, gave birth to Jimmy, born with Down syndrome. In the ’60s they called it Mongoloidism, and there was little understanding of the disorder — and no support or compassion for the child or the family. In Carl’s new book, “The Parallel,” he is thankful for a major shift in attitudes toward youngsters like Jimmy. He compares Robinson’s plight with that of his son: “Jackie and Jimmy … have traveled a parallel journey far more alike than different. … They were both striving for what was right. In the end what is right will always prevail.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. knew what was right. And just. We celebrated his birthday on Jan. 22, nearly 50 years after his “I Have a Dream” speech. The morning after King was assassinated in 1968, I walked out of my college apartment just off Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. National Guard troops lined the streets to prevent rioting. I felt the evil of racism. Maybe if I reach my 90s, I can share that experience with a first-grade class.

I felt a great optimism those three days in January. Racial discrimination exists, and so does bias against those who have special needs. But people who embrace such attitudes must know they are out of step with the vast majority of the country.

That weekend concluded Monday with the second inauguration of our first black president, Barack Obama. I watched the ceremonies knowing full well that we do not all agree on where this country is headed, but we should be all be proud, in such a very short time, of how far we have come.

Television personality Dick Wolfsie writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal.

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