A cluster of visitors, from Nebraska and Michigan, California and Texas, gathered around a petite, sturdy tour guide in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
“Look at Martin Luther King Jr.,” she said, pointing at a stately bronze bust. “Look at the stone. It’s both rough and smooth. Life is both rough and smooth.”
It was the recurring theme discovered during my family’s long weekend in the nation’s capital, where the American story is told again and again, in museums and buildings and at the bases of monuments.
We sacrificed lives in a fierce fight for independence from the British, and we won.
We fought again in the War of 1812. The British burned our White House and our Capitol. We rebuilt.
A few decades later, the whole country was torn apart, this time from within.
More than 600,000 Americans died in the Civil War. Four years after the first shots at Fort Sumter, the battles were over. Human rights won.
And then we lost the great Abraham Lincoln. Slaves were freed, but equality remained elusive.
A tapestry of rough and smooth.
War after war robbed our country of the greatest resource — our people. And yet our participation in those wars guaranteed freedoms for humans around the world.
People of color — and people moved to speak up on their behalf — launched the Civil Rights movement, forcing our nation to formally discard “separate but equal.”
We lost yet another president, the fourth by assassination, right here in Dallas.
We persevered during the Cold War, spread democracy across the globe, rescued global neighbors in need — and at the same time planted seeds of dissent that would later bear poisonous fruit.
We suffered cruel blows of terrorism on our own soil. The events of one day radically changed how we live. Time is now delineated as “pre-9/11” and “post-9/11.”
Rough and smooth. They live in harmony.
When my family wandered in to the National Museum of American History on Saturday, we heard a lone voice singing a powerful gospel song. We walked closer to find a young African-American woman, an actress, leading an interactive exhibit of the Woolworth’s student sit-in in Greensboro, N.C.
She wore a time-period dress and a scarf in her hair. She spoke to the gathered crowd as if we were students in 1960. She was recruiting us for the movement.
She told us that if we participated, if we chose to sit on soda shop stools to protest laws that promoted and allowed separate but equal, we would be provoked. We would be called names. We would be attacked. No matter what, we could never return violence with violence.
“But you must be brave, you must be focused, you must persevere,” she said.
Those Greensboro students were brave. They remained passive while under attack. They never wavered from their vision. And they forced desegregation of the lunch counter.
They were as brave as George Washington leading troops across the Delaware in December 1776. As brave as Lewis and Clark charging across the continent to reach the Pacific. As brave as Oklahoma pioneers and Suffragettes and World War II fighter pilots and first responders at the World Trade Center.
It’s been 12 years since the twin towers fell. Twelve years of rough and smooth.
Remember those first few days and weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, when everything was rough? We were despondent, angry, confused, grief-stricken.
And yet, we have endured.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed in the middle of crisis, to worry when our safety is threatened or when we’re on the brink of conflict. It’s understandable to bemoan the world in which we’re raising our children.
History, though, reveals a pattern of justifiable hope. Of trials that lead to progress. Of difficult circumstances that become smooth — often just in time for the next rough patch.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at email@example.com.