MOUNT VERNON, NY — August 18, 2017 — Two days of public pressure brought President Trump to condemn the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, white supremacist, and other hate groups who organized a rally that erupted in violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday, August 12, 2017.
The clash between the white supremacists and the counter protesters, where protester Heather Heyer was killed, was sparked by the ongoing controversy over the removal of a Confederate statue. The ensuing responses from President Trump expose his moral ambivalence to festering racism, bigotry and anti-Semitism; and to symbols of Confederacy in the South.
“White lives matter! ‘You’ will not replace us! ‘Jew’ will not replace us! Blood and soil!” chanted the most radical rally attendees, who carried lit torches in a procession, the night before. The television images of that procession evoked scenes of KKK members during the era of Jim Crow. The objectives then and now were fear and intimidation.
Given this backdrop, the delay in response on Monday denouncing specific groups did not rise to the level of moral authority and leadership that many expected from the office of the presidency. The president initially said the altercation “came from many sides” of the event, which leaders of both parties said seem to improperly spread blame equally between the white nationalists and the counter protesters.
It was reported that Mr. Trump did not want to alienate some of his backers who attended the rally. Giving credence to that perspective were two stunning events. On Saturday, former KKK imperial wizard David Duke who attended the rally stated: “it was white nationalists who got Trump elected.” He was taking credit as a Trump stalwart. Then on Tuesday, August 15, the president held a news conference, essentially reversing himself, and reverted back to denouncing both sides for the eruption of violence. David Duke followed up, right after the press conference, with a public statement thanking the president for his honesty.
These turn of events are nothing short of stunning. Nonetheless, the opportunity for presidential leadership and moral clarity in a time of crisis and despair beckons.
More facts and study are what Mr. Trump called for on Tuesday, in addition to suggesting there was a slippery slope in removing the Confederate statue. It’s not clear why the president would need a study to put the issue of race into context, because minorities have always known that race has been used as the great wedge throughout American history.
If, through the study, we were to examine our American culture with an eye toward broadening American identity, so that we can acknowledge we all have an equal stake in holding America to its promise of individual rights and liberty; That will be progress.
In the end, as a country we cannot despair. The majority of Confederate monuments were erected not during the era of the Civil War but several years after. The first phase came at the turn of the century when Jim Crow laws were being introduced. The second phase came during the civil rights movement, in 1950s and 1960s. The timing of the build out was no accident.
Kevin Kruse, a Princeton historian argues: “the monuments were not just historical markers, but erected to glorify the Confederate cause. They assert that a war fought to preserve slavery was a just one; that the people who fought it were morally upright; and that white supremacy should be cherished as part of Southern heritage.” Symbolism notwithstanding, we should engage only in lawful practice and debate to determine the legacy of these monuments.
The writer, Derickson K. Lawrence is a resident of Mount Vernon, NY, and was a 2016 congressional candidate for CD 16.