By Roger Vance
The coincidence and timing of events can sometimes serve to focus our attention, heighten awareness or offer us a different perspective—and challenge us to raise our voice or to be silent.
Last Thursday, the nation was engulfed in a howling storm of racial animus, emanating from the White House after comments reportedly made to a group of senators by the president of the United States about immigration from Africa and Haiti. Although the precise language used is in dispute, the tenor and tone of these remarks are in concert with a long record of increasingly nativist rhetoric that goes far beyond the norms of the American presidency—and contradict the sentiment expressed by Emma Lazarus’ “Mother of Exiles” whose “beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome,” and who declares “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
On Monday, the country honored the birth and life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., American civil rights leader and internationally revered advocate for human rights and justice. Assassinated 50 years ago this April, King accepted his Nobel Prize for Peace “On behalf of a civil rights movement which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice.”
Wedged between, on Friday the Commonwealth of Virginia celebrated Lee-Jackson Day, a holiday for state workers that honors Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. And then on Friday night and Saturday, fliers were distributed in Loudoun neighborhoods bearing the message: “Attention White America! We are nearing the end of the line,” urging people to get on board the Ku Klux Klan train.
The juxtaposition between the sentiments and principles of the late civil rights leader and the current Commander in Chief are in high definition, for all to see. Each represents a drastically different vision of America and definition of its core ideals and promise.
Even more pronounced is the incongruity of the 21st century state-sanctioned veneration of 19th century Confederate military leaders whose ideals were so inimical to those of American democracy and human rights that they waged war to destroy the Union to maintain and expand the ability and right to enslave African-Americans. The ideology of racial superiority espoused by these Confederate heroes has spawned generations of extremists and terrorists. These self-avowed racists revel in official Confederate homage in the form of holidays and public monuments—and the support or silence of the broad public is seen as tacit endorsement of their hate-filled views.
At its founding, America was hobbled by disturbing contradictions about freedom and equality. Led in revolution to independence under the helm of brilliant but flawed men, the most discordant notes in the American ballad—the legal enslavement of human beings—inexorably exploded in the epic bloodletting of civil war. Although the horror of slavery ended with the Confederate defeat in 1865, the drumbeat of the ferocious racism at its core never ceased; but rather remained as the constant backbeat accompanying the last century and a half of halting progress.
In the chorus of American ideals and values there are no refrains that exult notions of racism, bigotry, discrimination and exclusion. Indeed, America’s ideals and aspirations resonate in the harmony of freedom, equality and justice for all.
America now finds itself struggling amid a cacophonous onslaught that threatens to drown its true voice and undermine the core principles upon which our democracy rests and the very ideals that make America a beacon of freedom to the world.
These are things that matter. And, as Martin Luther King said during the darkest hours of the civil rights struggle, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
[Roger Vance is the mayor of Hillsboro. His column, A View From The Gap, is published monthly in Loudoun Now.]