By Alder Maurice Cheeks (originally published 8/24/2017)
Last week the most important story in the country was that the sitting president of the United States was defending neo-Nazis and White Supremacists. This week the biggest story ought to be: the American people are having none of it.
One week after the largest hate gathering in decades occurred in Charlottesville; apparently emboldened by the rants and tweets of President Donald Trump, these white nationalists tried again in Boston. When 100 neo-Nazis showed up, they were met by the force of 40,000 counter protesters, who made it clear that their bigotry had no place there. These alt-right groups have since canceled planned rallies in 36 states, but we can’t let our guard down.
As Americans consider how to respond to the future flaunting of hatred by white nationalists and their apologists, I suggest that we learn from these overwhelming displays of love that have emerged in response. In a matter of days there have been 700 events organized nationwide in opposition to racism. The resistance is clearly working.
Here in Madison, Wisconsin, we had hundreds of people come out and stand together on the steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol to mobilize against bigotry on August 13th. It was an honor to be invited to provide the opening speech for our city’s vigil. After speaking from the steps of the Capitol building, I hopped down to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of my neighbors. I was fortunate to have conversations with neighbors, friends and my constituents about the future of our city, our state and our country.
Experiencing this event from the ground and hearing candid stories of the hope that informed why folks came out, was priceless for this local public servant. Cheers rang out in the crowd as speakers underscored the essential importance of demonstrating love in the face of hate. Some consistent themes emerged as speakers reminded the audience that while what happened in Charlottesville was horrific, it occurred within a context of our nation’s painful history with racism. Yet, still we all have 60 seconds in a minute and we must choose how to use them: for good or for evil. A nod to the old gospel hymn “We Shall Overcome” had many in the crowd humming the familiar tune. That night the audience stood together in the face of the President of the United States and acknowledged that by speaking of moral equivalence he picked a side. We were firmly planting our feet on the opposite side.
One speaker, a young white man who described himself as an evangelical Christian, took to the steps to speak in direct opposition to the co-opting of Christianity for hate or for scoring partisan points. You could tell it felt critical for him to get this off his chest. It was an important sentiment to hear for many of us in the audience as well, and one hopes this sentiment grows louder through the coming days, months and years.
While in the audience I made it a point to talk with several parents who had brought their children along that night. I marveled at the decision to share in this moment as a family. As a new dad myself, I am witnessing how quickly children learn from the actions of their parents. One mother explained that it was her teenage daughter that encouraged her to come out that night. The daughter’s face beamed as she explained that she needed to be there, and that both her and her mother were going to be looking for ways to affect change in our community. I can’t help but think that the mother must have been quite proud. She should be.
There is a very real fear in living through a moment when the President of the United States has absolved himself of the responsibility of being a moral compass for the country in the face of domestic terrorists. However, we can remind ourselves that the vast majority of the American people still stand on the right side of history. And this majority will strive to teach our kids love and acceptance, rather than hatred and racism.
As the final speaker at Madison’s vigil, Young Gifted & Black leader, Eric Upchurch, made clear – while we came out to stand together, the next step must be action. Madison may have the reputation of being a liberal hub, but here in Madison – and across the country – we all need to pursue self-evaluation and seek opportunities to be a force for ending both covert and overt white supremacy in American society.
I firmly believe that our first order of business in preparing our community for progress is to become discontent with the way things have been, such that it drives us to demand change.
If Boston’s recent turnout is an indicator, I like our odds. But we won’t win simply by inertia.
We will win when enough of us have become truly desperate for progress and are ready to pour ourselves into our communities. We will win because we’re willing to fight harder, because we commit to loving people even when it is difficult and because we have righteousness on our side.
Featured image by Ingrid Laas