The hate and the racism we have labored under for the past four years is nothing new. The only difference between 2015 and our long national nightmare that began in 2017 is that we elected a President who embraced the values of hatred and division. In many ways, Richmond and many parts of Virginia was the center of racism. While hatred of African Americans was widespread after the Civil War, the Virginia Legislature and Richmond city focused on school segregation as one pillar of racism that, looking back now, seems hard to understand.
Leading this fight against school segregation was none other than our local hometown hero Harry F. Byrd. Byrd promoted a concept embraced by southern segregationists, which Byrd coined as Massive Resistance. In summary, this policy refused funding for any school district that allowed African American students to attend white public schools. Rather than desegregate, Prince Edward County closed all public schools from 1959 until 1964. While this example was at the extreme end of the fight against the integration of public schools, it is by no means the only example.
On Monday, May 17, 1954, The Supreme Court of the United States found in the historic case of Brown v. Board of Education that the segregation of African American and White students was unconstitutional. The decision was unanimous. In reaction, Harry Byrd was quoted as saying about the decision that, “most serious blow that has been struct against the rights of the States in a matter vitally affecting their authority and welfare”. Byrd would go on to say that millions of Americans will be deplored instead of promoted.
So, you might ask right about now, why this recount of an ugly era in American history has any relevance today. The values held by Virginians are at the root of what is decaying the essence of decency in today’s divided culture.
When the United States elected Barack Obama as the first African American President, we poked a slumbering bear with a very big stick. The backlash we are experiencing today is not so different than the rising of the KKK in reaction to the Southern Reconstruction. Many of the hate groups of today take their rhetoric, their values, and often even their costumes from that horrific period of American history.
The path forward is not a clear one. Once awakened, tamping down the hatred, the violence, and the inflammatory rhetoric, will not be reversed by electing a calm, decent human being as President. Nothing magic happened on November 3, 2020. One-third of this country is firmly encamped in the far-right movement. Another third is entrenched in the far left. One-third of ambivalent Americans in the middle hold sway in American politics. In Maine, South Carolina, and Kentucky, Americans voted to return to the Senate those who fanned the flames of Trump’s racism. We saw the hypocrisy of a Senate that denied a Supreme Court Nominee only to turn 180 degrees when the nominee held their extreme values.
Expelling those enablers of American injustice does not seem likely. Protest on one side of the extreme is met by protest from the other side of the extreme.
Virginia’s own Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying, “The cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate.”
What we have is a challenge. Education begins in our public schools. America must become aware that if this fragile democracy is to survive, it will be carried on the backs of our grandchildren. The preparation they receive in our public school will determine if we get to keep this grand experiment. When we tug at the purse strings of public education and deny teachers a livable wage when we push back against the building and renovating school facilities, we imperil not only the quality of our student education, but we threaten the existence of our democracy.
Imagine, for a moment where a public school teacher earned as much as a talented physician or commanded the respect of a judge or attorney. That is how we begin to rebuild this fractured democracy. The change will not come easily or quickly, but let it begin here and now.