The class had already gathered when the teacher, Ransom Stoddard, entered the room jammed with Latino kids, immigrants, and white and Black farmhands.
He asked Nora Ericson, an immigrant, to review what they had previously learned.
“The United States is a republic,” she said. “And a republic is a state in which the people are the boss. That means us. And if the big shots in Washington don’t do like we want, we don’t vote for them, by golly, no more.”
Then Stoddard moved onto Pompey, a Black ranch hand, to recall the Declaration of Independence, but Pompey could notrecall the “all men are created equal” part, so Stoddard reminded him. “I know that, Mr. Ranse, I just plum forgot it.”
“That’s all right, Pompey,” Stoddard answered. “A lot of people forget that part of it.”
That was a golden nugget inside a jewel of a movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
I remember absorbing that scene as a kid, even though I was more interested in the battle between Stoddard, played by Jimmy Stewart, and Tom Doniphon, played by John Wayne, over the affections of Hallie, played by Vera Miles. An undercurrent of menace flowed through the movie because of the villain, Liberty Valance, so chillingly played by Lee Marvin.
The film is a microcosm of America with all its glories and faults — class, race, gender roles, all of it plays a part.
The United States has always had these tensions pulling at the nation. We have risen to our greatest heights because of our diversity, but conflicts arising from that mix bring us down again.
We are faced with that challenge pretty much anytime a crisis strikes. The coronavirus outbreak was one of those events that once again exposed the economic inequality that undergirds America.
Women were saddled with child care, along with attempting to work in remote or otherwise difficult circumstances with kids. People of color were disproportionately affected by shutdowns and health issues. The country split into two: the haves, who are doing well with a robust equity market and more often the opportunity to continue working remotely, and the have-nots, who have lost work, health benefits and financial assistance when federal and state programs lapsed.
The insurance and financial industries have stepped up with impressive statements and have initiated ambitious plans.
A particularly ambitious one came from the American Council of Life Insurers, which is primarily a government affairs organization. The ACLI’s plan, The Economic Empowerment and Racial Equity Initiative, focuses on four key areas:
» Expanding access to affordable financial security in underserved markets. The life insurance industry is committed to building a more culturally diverse advisor community through recruitment, education and training.
» Advancing diversity and inclusion within companies and on corporate boards. Each member of ACLI’s Board of Directors has signed the Pledge for CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion as part of their commitment to bring meaningful change in the business community.
» Economic empowerment through financial education. ACLI will form impactful financial education partnerships, like with the American College of Financial Services’ “Four Steps Forward” initiative, aimed at achieving economic empowerment through financial education. The partnerships will be focused on moving more households out of poverty.
» Expanding investments in underserved communities. ACLI will advocate for tax incentives and other state and federal measures that promote investments in underserved communities.
These goals are significant, and if the industry gets behind them and makes them reality, it could change America for the better. How often are we given that opportunity?
This commitment and others from industry groups and individuals form the silver lining to the dark storm cloud that has been all of 2020. Whatever a person’s political affiliation or ideology, the essential problem of economic inequality is undeniable, and it’s holding back America.
It is up to all of us to turn these words into action. Not one of these efforts will solve our problems, but all of us pushing in the same direction will get us out of this bloody, muddy rut.
The Real Hero?
National politics have disintegrated our personal relationships, which have been further split by pandemic restrictions. Every conversation seems to turn into a trigger test — our ears are attuned to certain phrases that indicate whether a person is on our side or the other side.
I have been to town meetings where municipal issues turned into arguments that looked like Fox News and MSNBC yelling at each other. Friends and family relationships have been irreparably damaged by these divisions.
American public life has been a horror show, but it is not like the zombies turn back into the people we know and love at the end. If we act like we just want the other side to die, then we will all gradually get our wish.
So, if these issues have always been with us, how have we dealt with them before in our history? It has been the hard work that made things better. Whether it is fighting the good fights, like the Civil War, or building for the greater good, like the national highway project, these are efforts that require us all to give up something of ourselves for everyone else.
At the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, we learn that it was not Ransom Stoddard who did the necessary deed. It was his nemesis, Tom Doniphon, who shot from the shadows and spirited away, also allowing his love to slip away with Stoddard, the presumptive town hero.
Doniphon did it because it was the right thing to do. Stoddard did turn out to be a hero, helping turn their territory into a state and becoming its senator, along with serving in many other roles, all with Hallie by his side.
She was by Stoddard’s side as they rode a train out of town and reflected on what made all the progress possible. It was one man’s noble sacrifice, made for love.