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WOSTER: Have we let the light go out?

When I was maybe a high school freshman, I took my acoustic guitar to the grand opening of a grocery store in Chamberlain and accompanied and sang harmony with Mary Kay on a couple of popular folk songs of the day.

Mary Kay was a junior, I think, maybe a senior. She picked the songs — "Kumbaya'' and "Michael Row the Boat Ashore.'' She'd learned them at a summer camp. "Kumbaya'' was already an anthem among social activists, and I felt like a member of the movement as I strummed away and did a thin harmony behind Mary Kay's rich melody. That was in 1958 or early 1959. Eisenhower was president. The nation was pretty much between wars. A lot of people thought — I thought —we were going to make a better world. I thought — a lot of people seemed to think — it was just around the corner. A few more chords, a few more verses.

Then came the 1960s. I learned some Pete Seeger, New Christy Minstrels and almost every Dylan song on the radio. Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy, Vietnam escalated and the Civil Rights movement brought victories, defeats and deaths. That better world wasn't as close as I'd naively believed. Still, I knew it was there, if we just kept trying.

In 1968, James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King. Bobby Kennedy began campaigning for president. For the only time in my life, I considered volunteering to work for a political candidate. Sirhan Sirhan killed Bobby. I still believed in that better world, if people of good will just kept pushing.

I listened to a lot of Peter, Paul and Mary music. Whether they were singing their own songs or someone else's music, often Dylan's, their energy and harmony and optimism lifted me. When, in the early 1980s, I heard their song, "Light One Candle,'' I felt it summarized everything I had believed for so long about the possibility of goodness overcoming evil in the world. Yeah, I was a hopeless romantic. I've quoted from the song before because it says what I believed.

I found so moving the words of the final verse: "We have come this far, always believing that justice will somehow prevail. This is the burden. This is the promise. This is why we will not fail.'' Who could not be moved by the hope behind those words?

Friday morning I skimmed social media sites and watched the network news accounts of the fatal shootings of two black men by police officers in Louisiana and in Minnesota (Minnesota, for heaven's sake) and the fatal shootings of Dallas police officers during a march in protest of the earlier shootings. These are only the latest fatal shootings — deaths during police stops, deaths during protest marches, deaths during school days, evening movies, trips to the shopping mall.

This isn't a gun rant or a liberal versus conservative rant or a "thoughts and prayers'' message. It's just an old guy who grew up in the 1960s believing and who, half a century later, wonders if the dream was a lie all along and if his grandkids and their grandkids will be left with anything. My granddaughters are so vibrant and intelligent and spirited, I'd like to think they and others like them in the coming generation will figure out how to live together. But I thought my generation would figure it out. Obviously not.

I called up "Light One Candle'' just now and listened to the words: "Light one candle for all we believe in, that anger not tear us apart; and light one candle to bind us together with peace as the song in our heart.''

I fear anger is tearing us apart, more and more. I don't know how to change that or how we will find the peace that can bind us together. I wish I did, but I don't. And it's difficult to be optimistic when I see people are out there exploiting our fears to further divide us rather than to bring us together.

That old song ends with repetitions of "Don't let the light go out.'' Those have always been powerful words for me, but now, I just don't know.

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