Let’s be clear. It was racism that precipitated Saturday’s violence in Charlottesville, Va. The violence, itself, was domestic terrorism. To look away, to refuse to confront it and condemn it is a betrayal of the values for which hundreds of thousands of Americans have died and millions have suffered.
The Klansmen, neo-Nazis and alt-right goons who were protesting the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had every right to make their point, of course. Their First Amendment guarantee is the same as anyone else’s, and is chief among those fundamental values.
That question was well settled in 1977 when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the National Socialist Party of America – Nazi sympathizers – to march with a swastika in Skokie, Ill., home to thousands of survivors of the Holocaust. Hateful people who harbor vile ideas have the right to express them. It’s a cost of freedom.
But the First Amendment works for everyone, including the counter-protesters who saw it as their duty to stand up for decency. As Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, observed in the aftermath of the violence that erupted on Saturday, “We should call evil by its name. My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.”
If it was dismaying that, until Monday, President Trump could manage only a dishwatery equivocation after a young Nazi sympathizer drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters – killing one and injuring at least 19 others – it was heartening that some other elected officials in both parties understood their obligation. Indeed, given the nation’s ugly history of slavery and its onetime tolerance for Jim Crow laws, it is essential for Americans of good character to take a stand when bigots make a play for influence.
That’s what was unfolding Saturday in Charlottesville, the home and burial place of Thomas Jefferson, the president, statesman and slaveholder who wrote the Declaration of Independence. The conflicts that raged within America’s third president remain at work in American life, and were on shocking display over the weekend.
Those ugly forces seem to be gathering strength again in the court-ordered dilution of the Voting Rights Act, in the effort in some states to make voting more difficult and in episodes of violence such as occurred Saturday in Charlottesville and two years ago in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. That makes it all the more important for the tens of millions of decent, good-hearted Americans to speak up when despicable people espouse racism and bigotry.
The protest occurred as Charlottesville became yet another city in the former Confederacy to plan to remove statues extolling the leaders of the “Lost Cause.” Some of those protesters disguise their opposition in claims that politically correct officials are trying to erase or at least disguise American history.
But that’s not what is happening. The statues and the ideas and events they depict are, indeed, a part of history. But they need to be displayed in that context, not one that glorifies slavery and the terrible war it instigated.
As more places give up those monuments to the age of slavery, more protests will surely occur, creating the potential for more violence. State and municipal officials, including police, will have to be on better guard than they were in Virginia this weekend.
And good people of all persuasions, including those in high office, will have to be prepared to speak out forcefully when bigots try to push their way into the mainstream of American life.