The United States is grappling with racial issues many Americans thought we had resolved.
As far as the nation has come in dealing with the twin legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, events of the past few years show systemic racism still exists, and many of our political leaders are bent on exacerbating racial divisions for short-term gains at the expense of the country as a whole.
Today marks 100 years since the birth of George C. Wallace, the Alabama governor who stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama in 1963 in a symbolic attempt to block integration of the state’s flagship university.
Wallace’s story is one of cynical political calculation followed by an attempt late in life at some kind of redemption. He entered politics as something of a reformer on racial issues, at least by Alabama’s standards of the day. But after he lost the governorship to Attorney General John Patterson, who had the support of the Ku Klux Klan, Wallace turned into a fire-breathing segregationist.
When he later did become governor, Wallace proclaimed, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Later in life, crippled by a bullet from an assassination attempt, Wallace sought forgiveness, and a majority of the state’s African American voters gave it to him in the form of their votes.
“He later became good friends with the two students who eventually made history on that hot June day,” wrote Wallace’s son, George Wallace Jr., last week, referring to the schoolhouse door stand. “James Hood invited my father to attend his graduation when he received his doctorate from the University of Alabama, and Vivian Malone Jones was among the honored guests at his state funeral in 1998.”
Yet now, decades later, we have a president who, whether motivated by sincere belief or cynical political calculation, trots out racially charged rhetoric on what seems a daily basis, and whose populist political style has led many to draw comparisons to Wallace’s presidential campaigns.
By coincidence, Saturday marked another anniversary. It was 400 years to the day of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to the British colony of Virginia.
“By that time, more than 500,000 enslaved Africans had already crossed the Atlantic to European colonies, but the Africans in Virginia are widely considered the first in English-controlled North America,” wrote The Associated Press last week. “They came 12 years after the founding of Jamestown, England’s first permanent colony, and weeks after the first English-style legislature was convened there.”
Black and white, by choice and as chattel, some of the earliest settlers in what would become one of the original United States of America, came together in Jamestown, and there are Americans today, black and white, especially in the South, who can trace their ancestry back to that first English colony.
Americans black and white are still dealing with the legacy of Jamestown today, a strange and contradictory legacy that gave us slavery but also a belief in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that Americans have, in fits and starts, expanded to a more diverse population, and a Constitution that ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass held was ultimately “anti-slavery” in its core commitments.
America was founded on the right ideals. It has always just been a matter of living up to them and applying them consistently.
Whether it comes to the descendants of enslaved Africans or immigrants yearning to be free, the important thing is to keep moving in the right direction.