Retrospective on the Solar Eclipse 1979-2017

By Sosamma Samuel-Burnett, JD
Founder/President, G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice

February 26,1979, I was a 3rd grader in Ontario, Canada. I remember watching the solar eclipse with my classmates using a rudimentary system. We kept our backs toward the sun, holding a piece of paper in front of our faces and a cardboard screen that would allow the shape of the eclipse to shadow onto the paper.

Today, August 17, 2017, 38 years later, I had the opportunity to join my 2nd grade daughters in viewing the solar eclipse from their school in Loveland, Colorado. No rudimentary system, but instead 3-D like viewing glasses for all. The experience was fun, cool, and simultaneously indicative of how much has changed, but also how much remains the same. The awe and wonder of this amazing astronomical event endures now as before, perhaps even more so with technology and media of today.

But for me, this day was not only a reflection of the sun and orbit, but it’s a reminder of the passage of time and the events that marked it. In the 38 years since the last solar eclipse across the U.S., so much has happened in our lives, our nation and our world.

I could not have known as a 3rd grader in 1979 that just one year later, I would be leaving Canada to become an American. Jimmy Carter was president. That same year, I watched my first winter Olympics held in Lake Placid — with the miracle on ice of USA defeating the Soviet Union as Mike Eruzione scored the winning goal. A year after that, I would watch the events of the Iranian hostage crisis and the release of the hostages when Ronald Reagan became president. That year we also saw the remarkable eruption of Mt. St. Helens spewing smoke and ash for weeks.

In 1981, the smoke and ash were replaced by royals with the wedding of the century — Princess Diana and Prince Charles — the most watched global television event of the time. But the early 1980’s were also marked by global challenges, especially famine in Africa. We watched Live Aid in 1985 as Bob Geldof brought together the world’s greatest musicians for a benefit concern.

The next year, my school watched the momentous occasion of the Space Shuttle Challenger’s launch and the incredible tragedy of its crash. Then in 1986 we saw the Chernobyl disaster and the years of devastation that followed.

These events shaped me as a student, and led me to Washington, D.C. to Georgetown University’s school of Foreign Service. We were in the midst of the Cold War in my freshman year. I studied Soviet politics only to witness two years later in 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and of the Soviet Union itself just six months after my graduation in 1991. The world was forever changed.

The world was not only being changed by the rise and fall of Superpowers but also by a super innovation that was introduced in 1989 — the World Wide Web. Who could have known in less than 20 years how that would transform the globe? And after graduation, I saw the results unfolding as I worked in public relations with a range of international clients.

In 1993 we watched the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War under President George H.W. Bush. The following year we saw the beating of Rodney King and the fiery L.A. riots that ensued. President Bill Clinton led us to economic growth, and then into an infamous media blitz with the Lewinsky scandal.

NAFTA and the Northridge earthquake of 1994 were followed by the horrific Oklahoma City bombings and the later sentencing of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. That same year was the summer Olympics in Los Angeles with the boycott by the Eastern bloc countries.

From 1994 to 1997, I returned to Minneapolis/St. Paul for law school. Soon after, we watched the most infamous criminal case – the O.J. Simpson murder trial. I would later direct the largest state wide criminal defense association with none other than Johnny Cochran among the membership. A few months before I graduated in 1997, I watched the funeral of Princess Diana — her wedding was surpassed by her death as most watched.  I also saw the world come together in other contexts while serving as a Fellow at the United Nations Sub-Commission for Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities and experienced its diversity at the Working Group on Indigenous Populations.

In the years that followed, I focused on international human rights directing advocacy organizations and programs in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. to address violence and disparity globally. But in 1999, we saw the senseless tragedy of the Columbine shootings in Colorado — demonstrating that same violence here in our country.

That same year, I met my husband, an Air Force pilot, in the summer in Minnesota and were engaged on New Year’s Eve in Garmisch on the brink of Y2K with Prince’s 1999 a constant on the dance floors. In the summer of 2000, we were married and moved to Columbus, Mississippi and a year later in 2001 we moved to Sacramento, CA where he would become a U-2 pilot.

Within a few months of our arrival in CA, we experienced an event that would again change the world forever, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. My husband served our country overseas nearly 280 days of that following year. The events of and that followed 9/11 would later inspire me to establish a Public Policy Degree Program at a Christian liberal arts university in the hopes that ethical Christian foundations and rigorous education would equip a new generation of advocates and leaders to address issues like terrorism.

By 2003, President George Bush led us through the Iraq War. That year, Mel Gibson shared a controversial but by highly impactful film, The Passion of the Christ. A string of religious films and topics followed its remarkable international success.

In January of 2005 my first child was born. That same year Pope John Paul died and was replaced by Pope Benedict. Later, we experienced another national tragedy in Hurricane Katrina. With family and friends in Mississippi and in the Gulf — I knew first-hand the extent of the damage not only to property and livelihood but to people, communities, and collective emotions.

At the close of 2007, we saw unprecedented financial strains on Wall Street with the mortgage and lending bust and Enron scandals. The Obama years began in 2008 with this economic backdrop and continued with a series of domestic and global challenges, including the Affordable Healthcare Act, Ferguson, and ISIS.

By 2008, China had risen as a global power and hosted the Olympics with much fanfare and infamy. In the midst of controversy over environmental and development concerns in China, in that Olympics, Michael Phelps would win 8 gold medals.

In 2009 the global financial crisis was fully realized and has left its vestiges through today. But 2010 brought promise, especially with the birth of my twins. And by 2013 a new kind of religious, populist leader, Francis, would became Pope.  By 2016, the lush but struggling country of Brazil would host the Olympics — highlighting the tensions of the developing world.

2016 ushered a series of struggles and losses. The Syrian War created a refugee crisis unlike anything since WWII.  Terrorist attacks in unexpected places such as Charlie Hebdo shook Europe. And we lost many iconic figures, especially in the arts — David Bowie, Prince, and Carrie Fisher — to name a few.  The year also marked one of the most challenging presidential races in recent memory.

2017 has been no less momentous, starting with the inauguration of another populist, but controversial leader, President Donald Trump. His inauguration was followed by the Women’s March and a series of national and international protests and news event. Most recently the demonstrations and protests in Charlottesville revealed the stark underbelly of American society and sentiment. And, terrorist attacks in France, England, Middle East, Africa, and most recently Spain have struck the global community.

My memories run deep and wide across  these 38 years.  Since 1979, these personal and global events made a significant imprint on my life and those of many others. As I reflect on these events a, and their related trials and tumult, that span since the last solar eclipse, I am reminded of the words of ABC correspondent Frank Reynolds who reported on the eclipse in February 1979. He stated then, “So that’s it, the last solar eclipse to be seen on this continent in this century…Not until August 21, 2017, will another eclipse be viewable from North America. That’s 38 years from now. May the shadow of the moon fall on a world of peace.” I share his sentiment and hope that by our next total solar eclipse in 2024, we may draw a little closer to a world of peace.