Some 150 years after slavery and 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, America still cries out for racial reconciliation.
Seeded from our stormy past, racial discord in the United States has inexplicably and substantially grown in recent years — threatening to create a permanent fissure in our social fabric.
Events surrounding the brand-new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum provide evidence of the work still to be done. Several civil rights leaders insisted that plans be canceled for President Donald Trump to participate in the public opening ceremony. Otherwise, they said, they would boycott the event.
Jackson (Mississippi) Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said, according to CNN, that he could not welcome Trump and “share a stage with an individual who has not demonstrated a continuing commitment to civil rights.”
Even U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., one of our great living monuments to civil rights and freedom in America, joined the call for a boycott. Certainly, no one can legitimately take issue with Lewis’ credibility in this area as he — through his selfless acts of courage during the civil rights struggle — has earned the right to lead as he believes.
Like others, I’ve had my occasional frustrations with Trump’s rhetorical style. I take him at his word, however, when he says he loves our country and wants to preserve its promise for all Americans. And I believe his attendance at the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum was an opportunity to move away from the path of division and advance toward the path of reconciliation.
Although suggesting a boycott was their right, the civil rights leaders’ refusal to participate with the president was also regrettable. They bypassed a step toward the path of reconciliation in favor of a path of continued and certain division.
For me, these issues are personal. My late father was a freedom fighter and branch president of the NAACP chapter in my hometown for several years in the 1950s and ‘60s. Like my father before me, I am a life member of the NAACP. The civil rights victories of the past would not have been possible without direct engagement by our civil rights heroes with those who vigorously believed differently.
Our heroes from those past battles held the moral high ground and kept their focus on racial reconciliation and freedom. Opposing Trump’s involvement in this museum’s opening was an emotional response that simply fed the entrenched ugly divisiveness that’s all too prevalent in America — regardless of who is at fault. And it did nothing for moving us forward.
While I do not believe our president’s policies are intended to harm black Americans, let us imagine for a moment that the president really does disrespect the legacy of our civil rights heroes and that his policies really do cause harm to the bulk of black Americans. What better way to enlighten him and influence his policies than to take the high ground? What better way than to demonstrate to him the very openness, acceptance and opportunity once denied our civil rights heroes?
Today’s civil rights leaders surely remember how Martin Luther King Jr. and his allies worked with President Lyndon B. Johnson to push real progress on civil rights — even though, by many accounts, LBJ harbored considerable prejudice against blacks.
We must encourage everyone to resist the temptation to perpetuate this divide. We must encourage all, instead, to seek higher ground — the moral high ground that helps us keep our eye on the prize and recognize that we won’t see change unless we are prepared to make change.
In Mississippi, organizers ultimately accommodated the civil rights leaders’ objections. As reported in The Washington Post, the president spoke at an invitation-only gathering instead of attending the public opening ceremonies.
At that Dec. 9 event, The Post reported, the president said: “The Civil Rights Museum records the oppression inflicted on the African American community — the fight to end slavery, to end Jim Crow, to gain the right to vote — so that others might live in freedom. …Today we pay solemn tribute to our heroes of the past and dedicate ourselves to building a future of freedom, equality, justice, peace.”
Here’s hoping all Americans, including those civil rights leaders who opposed his visit, will work together across political and racial divides to help achieve just the kind of future the president described.
Curtis Hill is Indiana’s 43rd attorney general. Send comments to email@example.com.