It is early morning on June 6, 2011 at a Fairfield Inn in Chattanooga, where I have spent the night en route from Kentucky to Columbus. I skim the local paper -- sports, headlines, then editorials. I read what a columnist has written about the anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944. "We can scarcely imagine how differently World War II might have turned out had that effort not succeeded."
I don't remember D-Day. I was four years old. Even so, I am a child of World War II. My father's home town -- Bedford, Va. -- suffered more D-Day deaths among its young soldiers than any other American small town. The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford honors their sacrifice.
My thoughts are interrupted by a pleasantly noisy group of women getting off the elevator, then heading for continental breakfast. They are a sturdy middle-aged bunch, and they speak rapid-fire German. I infer that they are tourists, taking in a bit of what the area has to offer: the Chattanooga Choo Choo, perhaps, or Rock City.
I find myself thinking that the D-Day anniversary is unlikely to be what German tourists are observing this morning. Chances are that, in Germany, it is called something totally different. Hard to say.
I also think, "It is just as well." No need to fixate on the past or those men, their German fathers and grandfathers, who survived that day to fight other battles before the war ended in 1945. Not today, anyway.
I know this: Americans take justifiable pride in the accomplishments, the sacrifices, of our citizens engaged in war. The same is true both for World War II veterans and for young Americans who, for more than a decade now, have fought in the Middle East. Many of them have been deployed from Fort Benning a few miles south of campus, and I have taught their family members in my classes. They make this university a better place.
But pride, unchecked, is the uncle of smugness and the first cousin of arrogance. It was vital to beat Germany and its allies in World War II, to stop Hitler's efforts to exterminate an entire people. Americans led the way in accomplishing this, and I am proud of it.
Heading to breakfast myself, though, I am reminded that we Americans shared -- perhaps still share -- one ugly quality with our World War II foe, that being racism.
The woman in charge of the Fairfield Inn's continental breakfast is a dignified African American nearly my age. Bent a bit, she is cheerily deferential to the German women and to me, pointing out where the napkins are, showing me by gesture that the salt and pepper shakers are on a small shelf above the waffle irons.
I thank her for her help. Nodding, she smiles. She strikes me as one who has lived her long life well, with grace.
Yet I recall that in not-so-distant times Americans fought in a segregated army, that African-American veterans of World War II came home to segregated schools and white-only community pools and movie houses.
I may not remember D-Day, but I most certainly remember segregation. Columbus, in fact, did not desegregate its public schools until 1971. That fall, my first as a professor on campus, there were demonstrations -- loud, ugly though at least non-violent demonstrations -- opposing Muscogee County's compliance with court-ordered busing.
African American vets from the 1940s were in time the fathers and grandfathers of today's African-American professors, nurses, soldiers, and -- yes -- hotel employees, whether they work behind the desk or upstairs cleaning rooms. They, along with their wives and children, risked their lives in the monumental struggles of the late 1950s and 1960s in order to claim their basic rights as Americans.
The cost? It took boycotts and spilled blood before they gained a modicum of equity in school systems, public facilities, and hiring practices.
We have heard this real-life story before. That said, on D-Day 2013 I will return to a diverse campus where talented men and women -- white, African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and mixed-race -- learn alongside one another, and I choose to recall not only our best moments as a nation but also our ongoing, frequently flawed efforts to live up to our own ideals.
James Brewbaker, professor of English Education (adjunct) at Columbus State University, was coordinator of English education programs from 1971 until his retirement in 2010.