It is hard to imagine there is anyone in the United States that is not aware of the events that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday. It has been a topic of conversation for many since last Saturday. As with most significant events, there have been comments from many since the events in Charlottesville unfolded. The conversation continues in large part because of the statements, tweets, and answers to questions by President Donald Trump.
Many found his statement on Saturday to be quite inadequate. He blamed the violence on “many sides”, a statement that was almost immediately criticized, not just by Democrats, but also by Republicans. Senator Cory Gardner, Republican from Colorado tweeted, “Mr. President – we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.” Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina indicated that Trump had “missed an opportunity” with his Saturday statement.
By Monday, Trump had specifically condemned white supremacists and Neo-Nazis, but by Tuesday was speaking a line more consistent with his Saturday statement. While Mr. Trump denied he made a moral equivalency by speaking of violence on both sides, his words did just that, even if he did not explicitly state as much.
Trump has said that there were good people on all sides. In so doing, he seems to suggest it is possible for a person who holds the views of white supremacists to hold these views because they are a “good person.” And it is commonly accepted by reporters that some of the antifa, or “anti-fascists”, did have and use clubs against those who protested the removal of Confederate statues.
By equating the violence by the white supremacists with the violence of the antifa, the president not only missed an opportunity but made it harder to believe that he really finds racism unacceptable. President Trump was slow to condemn David Duke during the campaign. Years ago, he took out a full page ad in the New York Times against the “Central Park Five” who were convicted, despite DNA evidence which excluded them as being able to have committed the crime. While later exonerated of the crime, some saw the full-page New York Times had as increasing the anger at the four black men and the one Hispanic man charged with the crime.
The problem with the president’s “many sides” argument is that it lessens the abhorrent beliefs of white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, KKK members and others who believe there are the humans, and the less than humans. This is an issue where there can simply be no confusion. There is simply no room in this country for these beliefs. The best that can be said is that people who hold such beliefs are ignorant, but even that seems too soft a statement.
The president should have condemned the white supremacists immediately. He should continue to condemn them every time he is asked about them. He should speak out against David Duke, Richard Spencer and anyone who believes that whites are superior to other human beings. And he should do so without dividing. There is nothing “good” about Hitler or what he believes. There is no way to justify the views of a “master race”, or a concern about a country comprised of people of many races.
While I could see a value to using Confederate statues as teaching moments about the horrors of slavery, I can also easily understand how such statues, the Confederate flag, and other symbols of the Civil War are impossible to view in any other way than as an endorsement of slavery. Most Confederate monuments were erected after the “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson. This Supreme Court ruling made possible the Jim Crow laws that allowed racial segregation in public facilities. Another spike in monuments occurred in the late 1950s and the 1960s with the rise of the Civil Rights movement. So, I can see how it can be impossible not to see the symbols used by white supremacists as reminders of the time when it was perfectly legal to have sections for whites and blacks that never mixed. I can particularly understand how when these memorials are attached to government legislative bodies that they can become particularly problematic.
Another spike in monuments occurred in the late 1950s and the 1960s with the rise of the Civil Rights movement. So, I can see how it can be impossible not to see the symbols used by white supremacists as reminders of the time when it was perfectly legal to have sections for whites and blacks that never mixed. I can particularly understand how when these memorials are attached to government legislative bodies that they can become particularly problematic.
It is ironic that General Lee, whose statue in Charlottesville was the cause for the rally himself opposed statues honoring Confederate soldiers because he believed it would slow the necessary healing needed in the country from the Civil War. When asked to be present at a ceremony at Gettysburg, part of his response published in the Republican Vindicator on September 3, 1869, contained this statement: “I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”
Moreover, it is often this quote from a letter written to his wife that is used to show that he opposed slavery. “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages.” The problem, though, is that this quote does not tell the whole story. He continues by writing this:
“I think it however a greater evil to the white than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”
In other words, blacks are better off being slaves, being beaten is good for them, and only God can put an end to this. General Lee could be seen as a product of his time. But when the president indicated that taking down Thomas Jefferson’s statues might be next, as he owned slaves, he demonstrates his lack of knowledge about Jefferson. On September 10, 1814, in a letter to Thomas Cooper, Jefferson wrote this:
I am not advocating slavery. I am not justifying the wrongs we have committed on a foreign people, by the example of another nation committing equal wrongs on their own subjects. on the contrary there is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity. but I am at present comparing the condition & degree of suffering to which oppression has reduced the man of one color, with the condition and degree of suffering to which oppression has reduced the man of another color; equally condemning both.
Further, consider Jefferson’s second draft of the constitution in June 1776. “No person hereafter coming into this country shall be held in slavery under any pretext whatever.” He advocated for the abolition of the slave trade. “The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state. But previous to the infranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa.” Or consider his draft of the Virginia Constitution in 1783. “nor to permit the introduction of any more slaves to reside in this state, or the continuance of slavery beyond the generation which shall be living on the 31st. day of December 1800; all persons born after that day being hereby declared free.”
George Washington owned and bought slaves. But Washington made provisions in his will to free his slaves.
Many historians claim that the election of anti-slavery Republicans by large margins in the North led to the action of secession. And it is hard to believe otherwise. Consider the first reason given by Georgia for its secession:
The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic.
Slavery as a reason for secession was articulated by Mississippi. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.” The elimination of slavery in northern territories served as the violation of states’ rights, though southern states did not support states rights when it pertained to not returning slaves to the southern states. It is hard to imagine states seceeding if the election of the Republican party by such a large margin in 1860 did not occur.
South Carolina, the first state to secede, gave as its stated reason the election of abolitionists in such numbers that slavery was threatened.
A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.
Nor was the Civil War about tariffs. They were lower in 1860 at any point since 1816, and the tariff law at the time was written by southerners and passed in 1857. While most Southerners did not own slave, most supported it. A Washington Post article in 2011 quoted Georgia Supreme Court Justice Henry Benning: “The consequence will be that our men will be all exterminated or expelled to wander as vagabonds over a hostile earth, and as for our women, their fate will be too horrible to contemplate even in fancy.” In other words, the whites would be exterminated by the blacks if slavery were outlawed.
Let there be no mistake. The Confederacy was about slavery. The overwhelming majority of US exports in 1860 were the result of slave labor in the south. The inability to expand slavery into other territories was a reason for secession. While there were attempts to cast the cause of the Civil War as something other than slavery, the explicit statements by early states about secession clearly see the threat to the elimination of slavery as the primary reasons. Jefferson Davis, in his farewell address to the US Senate viewed the threat to states’ rights as one to be about slavery. He discussion about states’ rights is about the institution of slavery.
By equating white supremacy to the wrong acts of violence on other sides, Mr. Trump stood with hatred. Sure violence is wrong. But to refuse to call out consistently, powerfully, and repeatedly is more wrong. At moments of national crisis, it is the role of the president to strive to bring about unity. By continuing to emphasize division, the president not only missed an opportunity, but chose to believe that white supremacy, neo-Nazis, David Duke, Richard Spencer, and anyone who aligns are beliefs that are equal to those who stand against racism.
We live in a country where there is still “separate but equal.” And when the president fails to condemn persistently, forcefully and continually those who want to continue “separate but equal” in a most egregious way, he fails all Americans who seek to strive for something more.