We are killing young black men.
When they tell us there’s systematic and persistent racism, that they’re afraid for their sons, we should listen.
We’re killing Native Americans.
We’re abandoning them to poverty, isolation and early death.
When people tell us they’re hurting, when they speak on bended knee to get our attention to the problems they see and feel, we need to listen.
We’re killing middle age white men, too. We’re leaving them behind, to bad health and lack of opportunity, particularly in rural areas. But when they tell us about their struggles and their frustrations, we see our own faces and the faces of our fathers. And we do listen.
Sometimes, the worst among us hear them all to well, and take their frustration and anger and try to turn them against the “others.” When we hear that, we need to listen. And we need to stand against it.
It was echo of the stinging voice of Alabama Gov. George Wallace that I heard in Alabama last week.
The speaker was President Donald Trump, but his words carried themes from the not-so-distant and ugly past.
He attacked football players who silently and peacefully protest racial injustice, calling them names and urging NFL owners to fire the SOBs. He dismissed brain injury and concussions. And he set the emotions of the mostly white crowd against the mostly black men who play professional football.
It was a speech built on the idea of racial division and of black men being taught their place. Ungrateful became the new uppity.
The words were from the current president, but the ideas were from 1963.
In Wallace’s inaugural address delivered that year in the state house, the racist governor invoked Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis in a speech that will forever be remembered for a single line: “Segregation now … Segregation tomorrow … Segregation forever.”
But there was more to Wallace’s speech than the oath of fealty to a hateful and bigoted doctrine of segregation. He attacked judges, described Alabama as the “Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland” and talked about the “race of honor” rejecting federal tyranny, which was actually an effort to break Jim Crow.
And he spoke of the persecution of the “international white minority” and the dangers faced by the country if it were to become a “mongrel unit of one.” He called the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law, illegal.
“My pledge to you,” Wallace finished, “Stand up for Alabama.” We need to listen.
In Alabama last week, Trump continued on his campaign pledge to “Make America Great Again.” The reverberations of 1963 were hard not to hear. We need to listen.
Later in his life, confined to a wheelchair after a failed assassination attempt during a run for president, Wallace apologized for his defense of segregation, for standing in the schoolhouse door in an attempt to keep black students out of the University of Alabama, and denounced the violence that left protesters battered and four black girls dead from a terrorist bombing of their church.
He sought forgiveness and public rehabilitation. Maybe he was sincere. The suffering from his paralysis and the pain he caused to countless others – the terror and inequality he nurtured – perhaps opened his eyes.
Maybe one day in the future, Trump too will recognize the damage of his words and deeds. Maybe he’ll see that he is empowering white supremacists and appealing to the worst of human nature. Maybe he’ll seek forgiveness and even mean it.
But like Wallace’s legacy, the hurt will be hard to undo.
For now, the rest of us need to listen. We need to hear what’s being said and see what’s happening. And we need to do our parts to make it better, to empower our better angels and to empathize with our fellow Americans.