What the Many Owe the Few: Standing Up to Hatred and Bigotry
I am married to a man who is an ardent World War II expert — an armchair expert, mind you, not an academic. He grew up in the shadow of the men of his grandfather’s generation, absorbing the stories of heroism they brought back after fighting against the terrorism Nazi Germany visited upon the world.
What this means is that over the last 15 years, I have absorbed more World War II history than I would have imagined possible. Really. You truly have no idea the wealth of documentaries, books, and yes — periodicals — devoted to the history of the Second World War. While we sleep at night, Winston Churchill stares down at us from one of Carl Mydans’ iconic Life magazine prints, lovingly hung by my husband next to our bed.
His passion for World War II is met by my lifelong interest in the history of America’s Civil Rights movement. A movement sparked, in part, by the hypocrisy raised by the specter of American war heroes of color returning to state-sanctioned apartheid at home. Embers from this spark were later fueled by the lynching of a 14-year-old innocent, Emmett Till, born the same year that the United States entered the war.
So I was disgusted and outraged to see that in the wake of the horrifying violence and deaths that resulted from a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where demonstrators waved Nazi flags, that one of Texas’ most vocal leaders of the white supremacist movement not only felt it appropriate to reference Charlottesville and announce an upcoming rally on the Texas A&M campus* — but then had the audacity to declare that the violence that erupted in Virginia was the fault of “leftists” whose “anti-white” agenda has led to “white genocides.”
I’m not entirely sure what he meant — perhaps even he doesn’t know, because when he was asked by the reporter to name a single “white genocide” led by “leftists” he told the reporter he’d get back to him. Unsupported references to non-existent genocides makes a mockery out of the actual genocides and racial and ethnic violence perpetrated by white supremacists throughout history. And the attempt to shift blame from those responsible for the violence and death in Charlottesville is patently absurd.
It is like saying that because he refused to bow to Hitler’s will, Winston Churchill was himself responsible for the devastation caused by the Blitz. Or that Dietrich Bonhoeffer (my husband’s favorite theologian) deserved to be imprisoned and later hung because he returned from the United States to his native Germany to be part of the opposition to Hitler. Emmett Till did not invite his death — he was brutally murdered, as were the millions of innocents who died at the hands of the Nazis in concentration camps, the citizens of London killed during the Blitz, and the untold number of Americans who lost their lives to slavery, lynching, and hate crimes perpetrated by white supremacists in the United States.
The values of our democracy cry out for counter-protests in the face of those who would celebrate these murders. More fundamentally, civilization requires us to stand up and speak out. To declare with certainty that Winston Churchill and Dietrick Bonhoeffer are heroes and martyrs to what is right and good. To say with certainty that Martin Luther King, Jr’s sacred legacy as a great American must be protected and celebrated. And to remember that Emmett Till was an innocent whose atrocious murder sparked a movement, and that he did not die in vain.
On Saturday we added a new victim to the body count of intolerance and hatred. Not because she invited it, but because she chose to stand up for what is right and good. And as soon as plans for another rally on the A&M campus emerged, a group of students bravely announced that they would be there for a counter-protest.
They will be there to stand up to racism and bigotry because this is what people of good conscience must do. I am proud that so much of our work at Texas Appleseed focuses on trying to find solutions to the ongoing systemic inequities wrought by this country’s history of racial and ethnic violence, oppression, and segregation. And I will be there on September 11 to stand with the Texas A&M students and others who counter-protest.*
Standing up to hatred and bigotry and its permutations is, after all, what our heroes demand of us. It is what the many owe to the few.
*Update: August 15, 2017
Shortly after I posted, Texas A&M issued this statement cancelling the September 11 rally. While Texas Appleseed is a staunch supporter of the First Amendment, we appreciate the University’s concerns for the safety and welfare of its students and faculty given the deadly violence in Charlottesville.