A year ago I went to visit the farm, located east of Charlottesville, Va., where my grandmother’s grandfather Phil was born enslaved to the Parrish family.
Phil (born in 1852); his mother, Rachel (1828); and his wife, Susan (1860), were in this country when most white Americans’ ancestors were still in Europe, but they weren’t even considered second-class citizens before the Civil War. Instead, the system of white supremacy in the United States counted each of them as just three-fifths of a human being.
Last Saturday, Jacob L. Smith, a young white man from Louisa, Va., was one of the few people arrested during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Louisa is about 10 miles from the farm where Phil, Rachel and Susan were enslaved. Many of those marchers wore neo-Nazi markings and carried Confederate flags that honored the troops who fought a war to keep my family members and millions of blacks in bondage. Smith marched in a rally that reveres that era.
Rachel, Phil and Susan didn’t live that long ago. My grandmother knew her formerly enslaved grandmother. For most of American history, straight, white Christian men got the benefits of this country and everyone else got only scraps. We overthrew the slave system and its Confederate army in the 1860s, ended Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s and defeated the Nazis, who killed millions of Jews, in 1945. The question Jacob L. Smith and his compatriots pose to us is: Do we want to go back?
They very much do—and are drawing support from the White House.
The current president of the United States is a white supremacist sympathizer. Don’t let his reluctant words of rebuke get in the way of his history. He introduced himself to politics through Birtherism, demonized immigrants in his campaign launch, encouraged mob violence at rallies, and even retweeted white supremacist and neo-Nazi sources.
In the White House, he installed the publisher of the self-professed “platform of the alt-right” as his chief strategist and hired someone who proudly sported the medal of a Nazi-linked group to his inauguration. Immediately in the aftermath of the carnage in Charlottesville, Trump was reluctant to oppose white supremacists by name. Former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke and other white supremacist leaders celebrated his reticence.
There comes a moment in every troubled relationship when people stop arguing over who forgot to do the dishes or take the dog out and begin to discuss the real deep-seated issues that exist. It’s not just the lying or unpresidential tweeting. The deep-seated issue in our troubled nation is that our president doesn’t believe in the tenets of our modern American democracy.
Our forebears fought to bring into existence an America where anyone could be or do anything. It’s not perfect—but each American has a chance to benefit in our nation.
Do we want that America or not? Do we want more freedom or less?
This line that has been drawn is not a partisan line. It’s civilizational.
Jewish, Christian, Muslim, LGBT, black, white, Latinx and Asian Americans stood up to the white supremacists and neo-Nazis on Saturday. Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Orrin Hatch spoke up without delay. Corporate CEOs resigned from Trump advisory councils. Each of us who believes in the promise of America has the responsibility to express a vote of “no confidence” in a president who resists standing up against dictators, demagogues and white supremacists.
Several years ago, my cousin visited the home of the white Parrish family who held my ancestors in bondage in an attempt to bridge the divide between our families. The man who answered the door slammed it in his face, shouting, “We ain’t related to no niggas!”
Whether or not we are related by blood, we are family. Not just the Parrishes, but all of us. We built America into an agricultural powerhouse, worked beside one another to build world-class industries, moved here or headed north in search of something better than what we left behind, and fought in wars under the same flag. We share the mutual pain of slavery, subjugation of native peoples, and denial of full rights and citizenship to women, African Americans and gays. We also share the pride of helping to build what Martin Luther King Jr. called for: a nation that more fully lives up to “the true meaning of its creed.”
So let’s ask ourselves again: What kind of civilization do we want?
When white supremacists march on a community to instill fear, attack clergy and kill a young woman in a domestic terrorist attack, none of us can hide.
It’s time to choose a side.
Jamal Simmons hosts The Beat DC podcast and offers political analysis regularly on MSNBC and NPR’s Here and Now.