Last Friday, a band of white supremacists and Nazis armed with torches and Confederate flags rallied in Emancipation Park on the campus of the University of Virginia ostensibly in defense of a soon-to-be removed statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In reality, these white protesters beckoned a revival of the cause for which Lee and his army fought: preserving a society built upon white supremacy.
The outrage of Friday’s events was eclipsed by the horrors from Saturday, when one of those white supremacists rammed his car deliberately and intentionally into a crowd which had mobilized to protest the white supremacists. The result: one dead and 19 injured.
The Virginia governor was forced to declare a state of emergency because of the marauding hate mongers brandishing Confederate and Nazi flags. As David Duke of the KKK ran his mouth, innocents were beaten with clubs and bats by white supremacists. And the nation became embroiled in an all-too-familiar national crisis.
In reality, white supremacy really never receded into history’s canals. Every state in the union should take heed – what erupted in Charlottesville can arise anywhere in America – including Wisconsin.
Lest we forget, a white supremacist was found recruiting on the campus of UW-Madison just last year. In the midst of Donald Trump’s disgraceful and racist run for the presidency, a Trump fan on public display before 80,000 Wisconsin Badger fans in Camp Randall stadium, paraded about in a costume depicting the lynching of President Barack Obama.
So it was with outrage and determination a few months ago, when after hours and hours of waiting, I had the chance to testify against a racially-charged anti-free speech bill authored by the Republican Speaker of the State Assembly. The bill would allow the expulsion of students who protest racist provocateurs brought on campus to provoke outrage and violence.
In my testimony, I warned the bill’s authors that white supremacy is a violent and terroristic ideology that if given oxygen is like fire and can erupt into a destructive wildfire and spread uncontrolled, including across college campuses in Wisconsin, like the one I attend in Madison.
Our pleas met deaf ears in the Assembly, as the chamber’s Republican majority voted in near-unanimity to pass the bill – despite the grave constitutional and moral questions about the government punishing students for expressing themselves on political issues.
Incidentally, the bill is a model piece of legislation from an Arizona organization funded by the Bradley Foundation, itself headed for 15 years by Scott Walker’s campaign chair, Michael Grebe.
This anti-free speech bill is a clear signal white supremacists would be given an unfettered platform to spew hate and violence, further radicalizing white supremacists and inciting violence. In reality, under this bill and a similar version before the state senate, the counter protesters in Charlottesville could have faced expulsion for standing up against those white supremacists.
At best, Republicans are expressing naiveté. At worst, they are intentionally ignoring white supremacy. Perhaps it is because most are white and they do not understand how insidiously white supremacy operates as a terrorist ideology. Wisconsin experienced this in 2012, when a white supremacist massacred six in a Sikh Temple.
For too long, many elected officials in the Republican Party have aided and abetted white supremacy. What started out as not-so-thinly-veiled dog whistles, ended up with former-KKK Imperial Wizard David Duke proclaiming that “voting against Donald Trump is treason to your heritage.”
“For as much as this country exalts liberty and freedom, it is peculiar we commemorate the liberation of millions of Black Americans held in bondage by erecting statues of those who fought indefinitely to keep them enslaved. Simply put, these statutes were erected not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, but in the mid-1900s as black Americans struggled under the bonds of Jim Crow throughout the South. The purpose was to intimidate black residents, and remind them who still controlled their cities.”
Wisconsin leaders are also complicit. During his spectacularly short 71-day run for president, Gov. Scott Walker demurred in cowardly fashion that removing the Confederate flag was a state’s rights issue. In the 1990s as chair of the Assembly Corrections Committee, Scott Walker had a front row seat as Wisconsin became the nation’s leader in the proportion of black men incarcerated. As governor, Scott Walker has signed into law an abundance of unconstitutional voting restrictions, specifically targeting, as one federal judge wrote, to disenfranchise Milwaukee’s African-American population.
The historical legacy of slavery and Jim Crow still reach far and wide, encompassing all of America today. It is exemplified in the racial wealth gap today. It makes perfect sense that black Americans, descendants of those once regarded as property, sold and bred as cattle, have 13 times less wealth than white families: $141,000 compared to $11,000 in 2013 dollars. At current growth rates, it would take 228 years for black families to accumulate the wealth of white families.
In a larger sense, events like Charlottesville will continue to happen until the United States repents for the sin of chattel slavery and evils of Jim Crow. That begins with telling the truth.
Since our founding, Americans have told themselves lies to excuse the sin of slavery and brutality of Jim Crow. Martin Luther King Jr. thought of this when he said, “A society is always eager to cover misdeeds with a cloak of forgetfulness.” Antebellum slavery claimed the lives of nearly sixty million Africans in bondage from cradle to grave. The man that Charlottesville protesters rallied to defend, Robert E. Lee, was a slaver who ordered his plantation overseers to “lay it on well,” if slaves escaped.
The Confederate army General Lee commanded savagely seized freed black Americans during the war to return them to the auction block. One black boy was drenched in turpentine, genitally mutilated and left to die near Confederate quarters. Other Confederate troops raped and pillaged black communities in slave raids throughout the war.
For as much as this country exalts liberty and freedom, it is peculiar we commemorate the liberation of millions of Black Americans held in bondage by erecting statues of those who fought indefinitely to keep them enslaved. Simply put, these statutes were erected not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, but in the mid-1900s as black Americans struggled under the bonds of Jim Crow throughout the South. The purpose was to intimidate black residents, and remind them who still controlled their cities.
In his speech on removing Confederate statues, Mayor Mitch Landrieu lays clear the intent of these memorials: “The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are at least 1,500 memorials of the Confederacy in public spaces across the United States today. We need to tear them all down and tell the truth about our history. Imagine for a moment if Germany erected statues commemorating and exalting Nazis, the way the United States lionizes Confederates.
After abolishing Confederate memorials, we should replace them by commemorating the sacrifices and contributions black Americans have paid this nation, including their service to end slavery and Jim Crow. W.E.B. DuBois notes in his final chapter of Black Reconstruction: The Propaganda of History, that school children “in all probability complete [their] education without any idea of the part which the black race has played in America; of the tremendous moral problem of abolition; of the cause and meaning of the Civil War and the relation which Reconstruction had to democratic government.”
A historical revision commonly repeated, from William Woodward’s Meet General Grant, is that “The American Negroes are the only people in the history of the world, that ever became free without any effort of their own … they twanged banjos … and sang melodious spirituals.”
In reality, 200,000 black soldiers fought in the war, not including the nearly 300,000 black laborers. Proportionally, more black Americans fought in the Civil War than white Americans. They beat the Confederacy, saved the union and helped establish a more just democracy. Eighty years later, when black soldiers returned from a world war which saved democracy and defeated the Nazis, they returned to racial apartheid, separate but unequal and Jim Crow.
So many of these inequities still remain. What’s worse is that our leadership is coddling, rather than rejecting the racism of white supremacy.
We have a denizen of the White House, whose real estate father specifically denied housing to black Americans. We have an occupant of the Oval Office who led the racist “birther” movement against the country’s first black president. And we have a commander in chief who is determined to turn his Department of Justice into a voter suppression law firm named “James E. Crow, Esq.”
DuBois wrote, “War and especially civil strife leave terrible wounds. It is the duty of humanity to heal them.” America has not adequately healed the wounds of slavery, nor Jim Crow. Let us redouble our efforts in the wake of Charlottesville.
America is not better than Charlottesville, America is Charlottesville.