The White Supremacists who marched in Charlottesville seemed to think that their movement is committed to taking America back. They are mistaken. They cannot take America back because it was never theirs in the first place.
It’s true that the legacies of slavery and centuries of legalized racism have long tarnished our nation’s history. That reality has always stood in conflict with our nation’s founding ideals of freedom, equality, and self-governance. For too many years, white Americans simply ignored the contradiction that they didn’t want to see.
That failure to confront evil did allow racists and White Supremacists to continue their hateful traditions in America. But, from the very beginning, it has been our noble ideals that defined the nation and its aspirations. Both yesterday and today, being an American means believing that all of us are created equal and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The real shame, perhaps our greatest national shame, is that so many who believed in those high ideals never did anything about the grossly unfair and unequal treatment of African-Americans. Martin Luther King, Jr. called out such so-called “moderates” in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” How can you claim to believe in freedom and equality without standing up for those who are denied such basic rights?
Long before that, Frederick Douglas correctly noted that tolerating slavery while celebrating the Declaration of Independence made the celebration a “sham” filled with “fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy.”
Tragically, many who believed the best about America turned a blind eye to this problem. On the other hand, those who advocated white supremacy never lost sight of the fact that their abhorrent views were threatened by America’s noble traditions. John Calhoun, a leading defender of slavery, was frustrated that admiration for the Declaration had “spread far and wide, and fixed itself deeply in the public mind.”
Calhoun rejected the ideal of equality and believed that black people did not deserve freedom. Such despicable views made Calhoun a traitor to America’s founding ideals just as surely as Benedict Arnold was a traitor to the young nation in the War of Independence. The treasonous behavior continued when southern states explicitly rejected America’s founding ideals and chose to fight a Civil War in defense of slavery.
Make no mistake about it, those who march under a banner of racism and white supremacy today are also traitors who reject America’s founding ideals. They are not taking America back, they are trying to undo everything that makes America great.
Those of us who believe in freedom, equality, and self-governance must not be silent.
In Politics Has Failed: America Will Not, I argue that it is well past time for the shameful strand of our history to die so that the noble strand can flourish. We must not only clearly denounce and reject the hateful voices that reject our founding ideals, we must also work together to create an inclusive society worthy of those ideals. We must accept nothing less than a free and self-governing society where, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”