Ever notice that our most cherished documents begin with elements of time?
In the beginning …
When in the course of human events …
These are times that try men’s souls …
Fourscore and seven years ago …
One of literature’s two most quoted opening lines, “Call me Ishmael,” casts the narrator of Moby Dick as an orphan out of Genesis musing over “a dark, drizzly November of my soul.”
The other unites even as it divides “A Tale of Two Cities” into “the best of times” and “the worst of times.”
Children’s stories begin with “Once upon a time,” prayers with “Now I lay me down … “
Every Saturday evening, “The News from Lake Wobegone,” that “little town that time forgot” on America’s prairie, always begins with “a quiet week.”
Time cannot forget Aug. 28, 1963, in America’s then-vibrant, now-static capital when — after citing “history” twice to thank those standing with him — Martin Luther King opened his “Dream Today” at the Lincoln Memorial with “Five score years ago.”
Earlier that year, James Baldwin invoked Noah’s Ark with a scorching look at race relations in America titled “The Fire Next Time” — a warning echoed with “fierce urgency” in King’s Dream.
Five years later King had seen the mountaintop and Baldwin fled to Paris, leaving the Chambers Brothers to belt out “Time Has Come Today” with relentless tempo on, of all things, “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
In retrospect, the “British Invasion” was really the British Diversion: The Rolling Stones wavered between “Time is on my side” and “What a drag it is getting old,” while The Beatles’ “When I’m 64” was oblivious to The Who’s “Hope I die before I get old.”
For American diversion, our parents turned their longing ears to Frank Sinatra for “A Very Good Year,” but Old Blue Eyes just up and flailed away: “Riding high in April, shot down in May.”
Trying to bridge a generation gap, the already-venerable and forever-young Pete Seeger sang from Ecclesiastes: “To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season … “
But the gap widened when the generation that marched to “The Times They Are A’Changin’” spawned one that partied to the tune of “Let’s Do the Time Warp Again.”
For a time warp yet again, recent tributes to King’s South African counterpart, Nelson Mandela, leave an impression that America was always united in the cause to end apartheid.
Much the way a January holiday has purged the national memory of when King was the most hated man in America — in Boston and Chicago as much as Birmingham and Selma.
History? Giving “free” enterprise priority over human rights, President Reagan vetoed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986 before the Senate overrode him 78-21.
In the House, young Wyoming Rep. Dick Cheney condemned the Mandela-led African National Congress as “terrorists.” For the sake of his vice presidential run 14 years later, Cheney could only rationalize: “The ANC was then viewed as a terrorist organization.”
Problem with the word “then” is that it betrays the word “now.”
Cheney’s neo-con Republicans won presidential elections in 2000 and 2004, and continue to obstruct popular mandates of 2008 and 2012.
Combined with Supreme Court decisions favoring corporate over civic interests, and, this summer, striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, the result is an American Apartheid based on wealth — to which race is no mere coincidence.
Takes me back 50 years to the day when this Little Leaguer wondered why a man who looked like Hank Aaron talking about a dream was such a big deal — and four years later when a man who looked like Willie Mays made it all too clear.
Usually we hold a book, but Baldwin’s fists rose from “The Fire Next Time,” grabbing my collars and shaking me to near whiplash:
“Wake up, white boy!”
In an America not yet reduced to 140 characters or less, King and Baldwin could wake up anyone willing to pay attention.
Attention is measured not in money, but in time — time to be paid in what King called “the fierce urgency of now.”
Only by default of time does our George Zimmerman-now betray our Rosa Parks-then.
But as Pete still swears, “it’s not too late.”
Jack Garvey of Plum Island can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For Pete and Toshi (1922-2013), turn, turn, turn … .