When Civility Isn’t Viable

In modern America, it can feel like reasoned political discourse is overcome by the cacophonous roar of discordant tribalism. Older Americans tend to yearn for the halcyon of post-WWII America — a beautiful moment in which Congress was captivated by a bipartisan spirit that elevated it above the petty squabbles of legislative politics, its members working together in service to the American people. The passive observer, left behind by well-documented polarization, may feel compelled to ask: America, what happened?

In Barack Obama’s memoir, The Audacity of Hope, he discusses the death of “a golden age in Washington when, regardless of which party was in power, civility reigned and government worked.” The book tells of a conversation between the future President and Senator Robert Byrd, an ailing elder statesman whose tenure stretched back to the 1950s. Byrd was a Dixiecrat who never defected to the GOP. As a young adult, he became accustomed to leadership as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. An avowed white supremacist, he once wrote: “Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.” He would later bring his oratory skills to the floor of the U.S. Senate, where he would join the likes of Strom Thurmond in commanding fierce opposition to civil rights legislation, famously giving a 14-hour speech as part of a 60-day filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Yet there Byrd was, congenially inviting Barack Obama, only the fifth African-American to be elected to the Senate, into his office. By the mid-2000s, Byrd had long since renounced his racist allegiances, eventually receiving a 100 percent rating from the NAACP. As the longest serving Senator in U.S. history, Byrd vividly described his public life in the 1950s and 60s. He fondly recounted his heyday, discussing President Eisenhower and Speaker Rayburn, touching on the sense of unity and cordiality that used to exist in the halls of American government. Yet, as Obama noticed, there was no mention of race riots, the Red Scare, segregation, or rampant disenfranchisement — all blemishes that flourished under the reign of civility.

I find it strange that, despite acknowledging the sins of America’s past, Obama continues to romanticize a time in which Americans were “less ideological.” He is correct; at one time, white Democrats and Republicans could clink beers in their suburban enclaves, untroubled by complex conceptions of race and distanced from staggering violations of African-Americans’ rights. Yes, the 1950s and 60s were a “simpler” time, when racial hierarchies stood unchallenged and minorities lived in passive submission to white America. That simplicity only existed through white America’s ignorance of widespread injustice.

Of course, the 1960s shattered the visage of American utopia. Southern cities erupted into flames as activists launched an assault on the behemoth of institutional racism. Throughout the century between the 13th Amendment and the Civil Rights Movement, social progress had been slow, prolonging the anguish of African-American communities. Widespread support for segregation, compounded by government collusion with racist ideologues, made it exceedingly difficult to yield racial progress through conventional democratic frameworks. Even when progress was achieved legally, as in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, institutional racists did what they could to maintain the white supremacist status quo. The “massive resistance” campaign, propagated by the White Citizens’ Council, pursued “…the agenda of the Klan with the demeanor of the Rotary,” exploiting legal loopholes to slow integration.

Thus, while the rule of law proved inadequate, activists coordinated war against the pseudo-democracy that had deprived them of their humanity. I contend that the scenes that emerged from this conflict are among the most abhorrent in American history. In Anniston, Alabama, African-Americans who peacefully protested interstate bus segregation were met with firebombs; white counter-protestors tried to hold the bus doors shut as the fire spread, forcing burning protestors to stumble out of windows to escape the flames. Once outside, they were beaten and kicked while police officers watched.

In the wake of this catastrophe, the nation was outraged — not at the whites throwing bombs and rocks and beating burning bodies with billy clubs but, instead, at those “rabble-rousers” with the audacity to stir up racial agitation in the first place. Attorney General Robert Kennedy denounced “extremists on both sides” of the issue and encouraged the cessation of the “Freedom Rides,” as the protest was known.

The implication of Kennedy’s statement was clear: challenging the white order of the South (through peaceful means, nonetheless) was just as “extreme” as attempted mass murder. Kennedy wasn’t an isolated case — civil rights advocates also attracted the ire of many moderate, centrist Americans. In his “Letters from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rebuked the moderates, writing:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”

In the 1960s, at last, the walls guarding the treasure of enfranchisement began to fracture. They did not come tumbling down, but their structural integrity had been compromised. This monumental feat was not accomplished through the “law and order” touted by the National Review, but rather, in spite of it. Incivility was essential to galvanizing consequential action. Even Dr. King, who we remember today for his philosophy of peaceful disobedience, recognized the importance of direct confrontation. Civil rights advocates marched in Birmingham, Alabama, in May 1963, and segregationists responded by bombing black churches, homes, and integrated motels and unleashing police dogs on school children. Reformers faced an enemy they could not negotiate with. A white lawyer who denounced a Birmingham church bombing was forced to flee the city. The white supremacist establishment complicit in the cultivation of such hate would not rectify the problem if left unaccountable — institutional racists would not waver if challenged through democratic channels rigged in their favor. Progress required “rabble-rousing.”

In the modern era, I maintain that we should approach calls for civility with equal suspicion. Robert Kennedy’s denunciation of civil rights “extremists” mirrors President Trump’s insistence that recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, was the fault of “both sides.” Just as the bulk of Kennedy’s criticism was directed at civil rights “rabble-rousers,” President Trump emphasized the barbarity of leftist counter-protestors. To the President, the march of neo-Nazis and white supremacists on modern American streets was a secondary concern: the greatest offense committed in Charlottesville was a lack of civility demonstrated by those in opposition to white supremacy.

It’s important to recognize that the violence of organizations such as BLM was elicited by the broadcasting of hateful ideologies in a public space. Both Kennedy and Trump attempted to equate the bigotry of white supremacists to the “bigotry” of their resistors. This is a non-sequitur; intolerance of racism, and even violence driven by that intolerance, cannot be compared to racism itself. However, this is the implication carried when politicians deliver vague, indiscriminate condemnations of political violence. Even when advisers compelled the President to directly criticize right-wing ultranationalists, the damage had already been done. I must emphasize that Trump only grudgingly agreed to disavow white supremacy; personally, he was peeved that these “peaceful” protestors were unable to celebrate their “heritage.”

When we focus on the club-wielding anti-fascist, we forget the uniformed Nazi proudly boasting his swastika-clad banner and the hooded Klansman preaching his doctrine of unbridled hate, the two of them united in an unholy alliance to destroy everything America represents. We mustn’t silence those enraged by the unfurling of Nazi insignia on American shores. In calling for civility, we gag the oppressed to protect the oppressor. America, I ask you this: what moral high ground can we assume if our civility yields ground to hate groups?



Categories: Domestic Affairs

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