Alva James-Johnson

Alva James-Johnson: Grappling with ideal vs. reality

Visiting the nation's capital is always an inspiring experience. I was there for both Obama inaugurations and made a quick trip again last week while vacationing in Virginia Beach.

My family stayed for only a couple days, but it was enough time to explore a few historical sites. We were hoping to tour the White House, but didn't get clearance on time. So we focused on other national treasures like the National Museum of Natural History and the National Air and Space Museum. We also visited the World War II, Korean War, Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials.

Didn't get a glimpse of the President like we had hoped, but we did see Marine One zoom by on our way back to Virginia. So I guess you can say we came pretty close.

Pausing at each memorial, I couldn't help but reflect on all the sacrifices made to build this great country called the United States of America. Among them are the hundreds of thousands who died in wars to preserve freedoms that many of us take for granted.

That notion of liberty flourished in the minds of mortal men who were flawed in many respects, but brilliant in their ability to articulate the ideals of democracy and human dignity.

It always amazes me, for example, that some who cemented the idea that "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence also owned slaves. What in the world were they thinking?

The only way I can reconcile the paradox is to believe that they didn't really understand the power of their actions, and it was God who enshrined those words on paper and eventually used them to free people from bondage.

But there were many sacrifices along the way, some now immortalized at the National Mall.

There's the statue depicting Abraham Lincoln, "Savior of the Union," sculpted out of white Georgia marble. The subdued president sits in contemplation as he wrestles with the pangs of the Civil War. "What must it have been like to carry that burden on such slender shoulders?" I wondered. I thought about the courage it takes to stand for what's right. And wondered if I could withstand such pressure.

Later, we went to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. There we saw a towering statue of King, emerging from the Stone of Hope, his arms folded in resolute strength. It was another sobering moment, as I reflected on his heroic life, and the famous "I Have a Dream" speech he gave at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963.

Lincoln and King lived a hundred years apart, and both men were eventually assassinated. They left behind a nation still grappling with ideal vs. reality. Yet, they inspire us today with immeasurable contributions now set in stone.

I left the capital feeling proud to be an American, and also obligated to do my part to build a better future.

Washington, D.C., July 2014. A vacation well spent.

Alva James-Johnson,