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Charlottesville: The Ghosts of Centuries Past Threaten Our Future

by on August 24, 2017 4:00 AM

This month in Charlottesville, as clashes between demonstrators and protestors exploded into violence, our hearts broke for those who died, those injured, for the town and for America. The images of racial hatred and violence are this generation’s Selma, police dogs, fire hoses and bombed churches.

Charlottesville was sold as a demonstration over a statue, but as a nation the issues of these statues threaten to overshadow the real work at hand for our future. Race is the ghost that’s continuously haunted this land from a time before we even became a nation.

Many mistakenly hoped then-Senator Obama’s campaign for the presidency would usher in a post-racial society. In a March 2008 speech he addressed the folly of that thinking: “We've heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it's based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap.”

Aware of long-held battle lines stretching centuries Sen. Obama knew final racial reconciliation could not come in a moment.

Lincoln’s 1865 Second Inaugural Address warned that for our nation’s original sin of slavery, God might drag the war out “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” The Civil War and slavery ended long ago, but injustice did not cease.

While great progress has been made, our’s remains an imperfect union. Tragically maybe America needed this moment. Things shouted last weekend were words most dared only whisper privately in hushed tones.

The irony of Charlottesville was seeing “Christian” white supremacists gathered at Jefferson’s statue. Jefferson wrote that “All Men Are Created Equal” and wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom guaranteeing liberty for all religious groups, including Jews and Muslims.

Yes, Thomas Jefferson’s complex history includes being a slave owner, but he recognized the paradox of his failings and the wrongs of slavery.

“Indeed I tremble when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”

During Lincoln’s presidency, that justice of God had been realized in a terrifying manner.

Even before Charlottesville, intolerant intimidation had already reared its vile face publicly. Days earlier in a Vatican publication, La Civiltà Cattolica, director Antonio Spadaro and Presbyterian Pastor Marcelo Figueroa wrote “Triumphalist, arrogant and vindictive ethnicism is actually the opposite of Christianity.”

The future will bring more demonstrations. Perhaps tensions will cool in the near term, but we must be vigilant to an awakening acceptance of division, hatred and violent confrontation.

Every president has faced these challenges in varying degrees.

In my office hangs a June 1992 letter from President George H W Bush. As a young coach at Virginia I’d written to express concern on the state of race relations in the wake of the L.A. riots. President Bush responded and, while he noted progress that had been made, he recognized our need to continue.

“Much remains to be done to alleviate the tensions of which you wrote. Government can assist in some areas; in other areas it falls upon the community, the family and the individual to make a difference.”

That lesson is still valid. We must extend the hand of unity in our communities and between individuals. Certainly some will refuse harmony. But a majority united by the poetry of our founding documents yet frustrated by recent events must not be seduced by the lure of anger. We must press to change the arc of our history.

This cause cannot be about statues of stone or bronze. We must focus on living men and women to shape a peaceful legacy for future generations. Across America, in urban centers and in poor rural areas facing failing schools, violence and the scourge of addiction, the arguments over statues are a distraction from meaningful change.

Just as electing a black president did not instantly turn the page on the past, tearing down a statue will not educate a child, will not cure addiction nor will it make our communities safer. While we focus on either tearing down or defending dead statues we waste scarce resources needed to build the towering, living monument of an educated generation free from the scourge of hatred and drugs.

Charlottesville should inspire action to strike at the heart of divisive bigotry, the long-lingering cancerous tumor that we’ve never completely driven from the soul of our nation. In our nation, at the podium of discourse, those voicing the patient restraint of righteousness are drowned out by voices of chaotic anger inciting ever greater discord among even those who believe in our most American of values.

Somewhere the leadership of a rational center must rise espousing the cause of justice through nonviolent means. Men and women of conscience must temper our anger and instead forge the will for consensus on equal opportunity.

We must not allow hate-mongers to divide people facing similar problems afflicting all of us, across all races in urban and rural communities. Solutions to our common problems must be paramount. If we remain distracted by the sowers of discord, we doom ourselves to continuing the burden Lincoln warned of more “blood drawn from the sword.”


 

 



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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