It was November 21, 2013. A brisk, cold fall evening.
But, inside the white tent on the National Mall, the air was warm and the mood somber.
Nine days earlier, Eliseo Medina had launched the Fast for Families. Following the examples of Cesar Chavez (whom Eliseo had worked for), Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, the Fast for Families hoped to touch the compassion and sensibilities of our elected leaders to address the moral crisis of a broken immigration system.
Subsisting on nothing more than water, Eliseo’s 67 year old body was showing the effects of no food. Wearing a brown Fast for Families hooded sweatshirt and jeans that seemed to get larger every day, Eliseo sat in a lawn chair, speaking quietly to a man in a made for television suit sitting next to him…who was Juan Williams.
I had met Juan a month or two earlier when he invited me to join him for a dinner with others in the immigration space. Up to that point, I knew Juan for the controversy surrounding his exit from NPR and for his books, including, Eyes on the Prize. This was what I would call my first “DC dinner” where I had the opportunity to sit and talk with important people who, well, talk to a lot of important people. (My calendar does not include many such dinners any longer.)
I remember Juan spending the entire dinner peppering the group with questions. Clipped questions. And, just when I wasn’t sure if he was listening, he’d laser a question.
I also began to understand why the conversation was so important to Juan. As an immigrant from Panama, the nation’s immigration debate was deeply personal. Juan straddled the worlds of the traditional black civil rights movement and the struggle of immigrants to the U.S.
All of which may be why the first chapter of Juan’s new book, We the People, is titled “The Great American Melting Pot.”
When Juan first told me about We the People, a look at modern figures through the eyes of America’s founding fathers, I thought it sounded a little Back to the Future’esque.
“Not sure there is a market for historical science fiction,” I said to myself. “But, you do you, Juan.”
I totally missed Juan’s point.
We the People is an exhaustive, accessible, deep dive into the influential figures of our time. Painstakingly researched, (at times, a bit too) politically balanced, the work delves into the work of leaders ranging from Milton Friedman to Rachel Carson to Billy Graham to Eleanor Roosevelt.
Instead of merely a snapshot of the moment in time, each chapter goes behind the headlines to examine the larger context.
For example, the complementary and contradicting paths Earl Warren and Thurgood Marshall took to the Supreme Court were brought into clear relief. Warren, whose early career included his adamant support of Japanese internment camps, was brought full circle to lead unanimous support of Marshall’s successful argument in Brown vs Board of Education. And, how their work challenged the practices of the Founding Fathers while upholding their vision for the United States.
What I enjoyed most about We the People was Juan’s comprehensive map of a leader’s journey and impact, as well as a path for the reader to see how the challenges and opportunities the Founding Fathers saw for the nation were addressed. As Juan wrote in the closing of the chapter about Rachel Carson and the modern environmental movement:
In this, the hardened political conversation about the future of the nation’s environment parallels the competing visions of the first Founders: between leader in favor of protecting farmlands and leaders intent on unleashing industrial growth through the use of natural resources to produce economic expansion.
Maybe this is the Back to the Future of American history that we need, after all. The more things change, the more things change.
Which takes me back to that November 2013 evening on the Mall.
One of the country’s immigrant right’s icons, discussing his journey to that moment with one of the country’s most respected journalists and historians. I don’t think the Founding Fathers could’ve imagined such people having such a conversation, within sight of the nation’s capital.
But, as I think back to that moment, the Founding Fathers would’ve been proud two immigrants were fighting for the future of the nation from two powerful perches.