By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
October 05, 2020
When I arrived in the U.S. in 1964, the presidential contest between Lyndon Johnson (Democrat) and Barry Goldwater (Republican) was underway. They disagreed on many issues (for example, the use of the atomic bomb in warfare and U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War), but their major difference revolved around how to tackle the legal barriers that prevented African-Americans from voting in federal and state elections. This initiative was the culmination of ten years of sustained struggles by African-Americans against all forms of discrimination against them.
Goldwater won the Republican nomination. In his Acceptance Speech he uttered a frightful, racist statement: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” White racists welcomed this wink and a nod. It allowed them to continue their oppression against Black people. Nelson Rockefeller, Goldwater’s opponent, called the statement “dangerous, irresponsible and frightening,” while Martin Luther King Jr. said it contained “dangerous signs of “Hitlerism.” Pat Brown, governor of California, declared: “The stench of fascism is in the air.”
In 1965, Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress asking that its members approve a proposed voting rights bill that would remove many of the legal barriers against African-Americans from voting. He used King’s words to cement that moment in history: “Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just the Negroes, but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
King was at a friend’s home in Selma, Alabama, when Johnson made his speech. He cried when the president used his own words to garner the support of Congress and to change the minds of those who had vehemently opposed the rights of Black people. On August 6, 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act that removed most barriers that prevented African-Americans from casting their votes.
These memories came rushing back to me on Tuesday evening when President Donald Trump, in his debate with Joe Biden, called upon the Proud Boys, a white supremacist group, to “Stand Back, Stand By.” Formed in 2016, Proud Boys harbors fascist tendencies and is committed to preventing citizens from voting in November by any means necessary.
The Proud Boys, the ultimate weapon in Trump’s political arsenal, is one of America’s most lethal domestic terrorist groups. In April Christopher Wray, director of the FBI, testified to Congress that “white supremacist extremism” is a significant danger to the U.S. A Draft Report from the U.S. Homeland Security that was leaked to the public last month said that “white supremacists present the gravest threat to the United States.”
Trump’s instruction that the Proud Boys stand back and stand by was an appeal to the naked racism that lies at the heart of American society. Heidi Beirich, the cofounder of the Global Project against Hate and Extremism, warned: “You’re essentially telling a paramilitary force to ‘stand by.’ I think at this point, the biggest thing to worry about is Election Day….It’d be pretty scary to try and go vote and have hundreds of people screaming at you about these ideas” (Boston Globe, October 1).
Think of it. Beirich is a white woman who worked for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, for twenty years. She says that groups such as the Proud Boys scare her to death. Then think of the millions of Black people, particularly in the South, who are determined to vote for Biden and Kamala Harris; one can imagine the fear they feel. One wonders how far Trump is willing to go to secure his reelection to the most powerful job in the world. Turning back the political clock by 56 years doesn’t faze him in the least.
By late Wednesday evening Trump recognized that he had made a gigantic error in embracing white supremacists. He had to change course. He declared: “I condemn the KKK, I condemn all white supremacists. I condemn the Proud Boys. I don’t know much about the Proud Boys, almost nothing, but I condemn that.” He realized that his racial appeal was an obstacle to his reelection although he may still believe in racist doctrines.
On Tuesday Trump ridiculed Biden for wearing masks in public: “I don’t wear a mask like him. Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from them and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”
On Thursday Trump tested positive for coronavirus after assuring the American public on Monday that the country was “rounding the corner” on the virus although he had exposed millions of Americans to the deadly virus. He did not care whether they became infected or not. He was only concerned about preparing the Proud Boys and other racists to get ready to intimidate voters at the polls. Today, he is at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center as he recovers from the virus.
The genocide of the native peoples and the enslavement of Black people are U.S. original sins. The U. S. has become used to deploying racism at home and terrorism abroad to achieve its domestic and international goals. But racism and white supremacy kill. They might be even more deadly than the virus that has gripped the U.S.
Ever so often, God/Allah/Jah reminds us that these man-made viruses that we develop (such as racism) can have devastating consequences. Sometimes it leads to the fascism that occurred in Germany. Governor Brown warning may still be true today: “The stench of fascism may be in the air.” Americans must remain vigilant against such tendencies. King may be crying in his grave for his country.