My voice teacher in college, Aldrich Adkins, was an African American man about the same age as my father. He served in the Army in World War II.
When he was stationed at a base in the south during the war, they assembled all the soldiers for a speech. They put up a fence, put the white soldiers on one side and the Black ones on the other, and then some general proceeded to talk about freedom and democracy and the American way.
The Black soldiers came with in an inch of a riot.
When well-meaning people say of the horrific events in Charlottesville “I don’t recognize my country any more,” I think of stories like that told by Mr. Adkins. Unfortunately, I do recognize my country in the hate of white supremacists.
I grew up in the Jim Crow south. My high school was integrated my senior year – a long time after Brown v. Board. That was the same high school where I learned in American history class that the Civil War was fought between us and them.
I knew – I tried cases with – the first African American woman licensed to practice law in Texas. I knew the first Black graduate of the University of Texas law school – he was a friend of my father who represented Freedom Riders in Houston in the 1960s. I followed the brutal attacks on Civil Rights activists on television and in the papers.
And, for that matter, my father sang “Dixie” at a Confederate veterans reunion when he was five years old. Most of my ancestors fought for or supported the Confederacy. My family history and the white history of the United States are fully intertwined.
The hate demonstrated by the white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville surrounded me as a child. Fortunately, I was taught at home that it was wrong. I do not know how my parents managed to move beyond the racism they grew up in, but they did. My own understanding of the issues has become deeper over time, but it helped a lot to start from the premise that racism was intolerable.
The white supremacists were quieter for awhile, though the hate they preached still showed up in many places. Now, though, they are coming out of the woodwork again, emboldened by the politicians who use hate to get elected.
We must stop them. To do that, we must recognize that the hate they spew has always been here in our country. It goes back to slavery and to the many years of Jim Crow laws, lynchings, white race riots, segregation, and criminal laws designed to keep Black people down.
We can’t stop this unless we deal with all of that. Just driving the current set of white supremacists back into hiding is not enough.
Yes, protest them. Sue them. Stop them any way you can. They represent a great danger to us and we must all come together to rid ourselves of their hate.
But we must go farther than that, look at the bad associated with our country as well as the good. It might be possible some day to have the democratic country we’ve always pretended to have, but only if we start telling the truth in history class. And to each other.