Each century seems to take on a particular character as we view it in retrospect. How will the 20th Century be remembered? My guess is that this dramatic span of 100 years will ultimately be marked not by computers or the Internet, but by the drive toward individual freedom, the breaking of human barriers of prejudice, and the opening of society to include all people.
When 1899 passed into 1900, segregation was the law in some parts of this nation and the almost unchallenged tradition in others. No blacks were in the entertainment business except as caricatures of themselves. Professional athletics had no mainstream black heroes, for black athletes generally were not allowed to compete in the white arena.
The armed services of this country were segregated. When justification was needed for this practice, "army discipline" was offered without significant debate. There were no African-Americans in the higher echelons of government, business, law, or in the leadership of mainline Christian churches. No blacks were thought of as candidates for high political office.
But when the century ended, Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey, among many others, were television stars. George Foreman could sell his name for millions of dollars to the peddlers of everything from hamburgers to mufflers. Jackie Robinson was in the Hall of Fame. Hank Aaron held the record for most home runs hit in the major leagues. Michael Jordan was hailed as the greatest athlete of the century. Tiger Woods was the new Arnold Palmer.
Colin Powell had been Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces. Jesse Jackson had been a serious candidate for the presidency of the United States. Douglas Wilder had been Governor of Virginia. The President of the United States had been defended in an impeachment trial by a black attorney.
Apartheid and segregation were legally dead, and while racism had not been expunged from public life, it was no longer acceptable.
When the year 1900 dawned, there were still states where a woman could not own property. Women could not vote. The Supreme Court had stated that the law was not a fit occupation for a woman. A university degree for a woman was almost unheard of. And every church declared that a woman was not a fit candidate for ordination.
Today, just 100 years later, at least two Fortune 500 companies have female chief executive officers. Abby Joseph Cohen's analysis of the stock market is sought by hoards of men eager to make a buck. President Franklin D. Roosevelt made history by appointing a woman to his Cabinet in 1932. Today the two most powerful offices in the Cabinet, the Secretary of State and the Attorney General, are occupied by women. Two women sit on the Supreme Court. Women are in the Senate, the House of Representatives, and governors' mansions.
The first woman elected a bishop in the Anglican Communion was an African-American woman, and women now occupy the Episcopal Chair in dioceses across the United States, Canada and New Zealand.
Similarly, when the year 1900 arrived, the word "homosexuality" was hardly ever spoken. People considered homosexuality a mental illness or a moral depravity. It was a lifestyle chosen by deviant people, a manifestation of failed parenting, and a source of family shame. If gay or lesbian people could not keep this strange disease deeply hidden, they were subject to rejection, abuse and even murder. "Faggots" we called them, identifying homosexual persons with the sticks used to ignite the fires that burned "queers" or suspected "queers" to death in the name of God.
But during the years of this century, other data have emerged, affirming that homosexuality is a given, not a chosen. It is not a mental illness. It is not contagious, and it cannot be cured. It simply is.
This new knowledge has fueled the political struggle today over how to accept our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. It is seen in the current debate about whether homosexuals may serve in the armed services. The century closes with gay men now serving openly in the Congress. Churches all over the world are debating this issue vigorously, most of them unaware that the debate itself is evidence of a changing consciousness. Gay pride parades, gay churches, gay and lesbian clergy, the blessings of same sex unions--all are signs that the back of this prejudice has also been broken in this century.
Yes, it has been the information century, but it has also been a time of enhanced personal freedom. That is no small achievement, and it gets my vote for the most significant mark of the turbulent 20th century.