Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Charlottesville: Struggle for the Soul of America

What we saw this past Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, was a despicable spectacle of racial bigotry and hatred in full display, for the world to see.

Recognizing that four statues in Charlottesville celebrated the racism, xenophobia and a time when slavery of African Americans was acceptable, the City decided to remove the statues. The events of last weekend make very clear that 152 years after the end of the bloody civil war against the United States, crucial lessons have not been learned and wounds that have not healed.

The violence, racism and bigotry at the heart of the Charlottesville event are alarming and sad. But they are made worse by this country’s current president who does not see the difference between those who hate and those who aspire to a better future. A president who will not distance himself from David Duke, the former head of the Ku Klux Klan and the others who perpetrated the violence in Charlottesville. David Duke, however, openly connects his aims with those of the president in stating, “This represents a turning point for the people in this country. We are determined to take our country back. We’re going to fulfill the PROMISES of Donald Trump. And, that’s what we believe. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he was going to take our country back, and that’s what we got to do.” A turning point? What promises did Donald Trump make to these white supremacist groups?

Trump’s beliefs and associations undergird his reactions and statements. The “alt right” has no place being in the White House advising the president on policy and national security. The presence of “alt right” members Bannon, Miller and Gorka, among others, in the White House makes our nation less secure. Not since Woodrow Wilson has there been a president as divisive on race as the current president.

I have two major observations about what happened this past weekend. First, these white supremacists are not old men, but are rather young men and women, mostly in their 20s, 30s and 40s. This means that, like in radical Islam, these young men and women have been “radicalized” to hate blacks, Jews and others who are not like them. Hate is a learned behavior. And the most shocking picture I saw from the weekend was of little girl, no more than three, dressed in full KKK regalia.

Another observation worthy of noting is that those standing against the white supremacists are not mostly black. Rather those seeking to reconcile the divisiveness in this country are a multiracial, diverse mix of persons. They are uniting to stand up to the hate and bigotry of the Klan, the neo-Nazis, Skinheads and other hate groups. What this tells me is that a broad based coalition of American citizens is fighting the white supremacists. Therefore, I believe that the white supremacists are outnumbered in this fight. We can win, but we all have to come together to win this battle for the soul of our country. This is a wake up call for our nation. A call to lay to rest the legacy of slavery, racial bigotry, white supremacy that were to end with the Civil War, but have been kept alive by celebrating the heroes of that war that we still see as statues, in parks and on school walls. It is far past time to leave those names in the history books and to honor instead, in statues and other memorials, the men and women who inspire all of us to love, not hate.

The white supremacist groups showed up in Charlottesville heavily armed with guns, hate and dangerous rhetoric. In my opinion, this nation will not meet the shining destiny envisioned by the founding fathers until hate, violence and malevolence are overcome. We cannot move forward until we have dealt with our past. Putting the Civil War, and its heroes in proper perspective is imperative for our nation’s progress.

Thomas Jefferson was a founding father of our country and was also a founder of the city of Charlottesville, Virginia. When he penned the Declaration of Independence, he released into the cosmos words that have such great meaning that they transcend race and time. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Even though he held slaves, through his words, he set this nation on a path where those words have inspired us to move forward together. It is my hope that Charlottesville will in fact be a turning point, one that galvanizes what is best in all of us to champion the transcendent, universal aspirations of all Americans.


Edwin Henderson is the founder and executive director of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation.