“There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
— Martin Luther King Jr.
Society’s collective deeds ultimately bear the judgment of time. Today’s actions are tomorrow’s history. Next decade, 50 years from now, next century, people will consider our present conduct in the same fashion that we currently revisit the reaction to the economic collapse of 2008, fallout from the Vietnam War or heroism that produced an end to World War I.
When Bull Connor turned fire hoses and attack dogs on civil rights activists in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, some aimed the hoses and urged on the dogs, some suffered the brunt of the violence, but most Americans were silent.
When civil rights demonstrators were brutally beaten and tear-gassed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, some swung the billy clubs and fired the gas, some suffered the blows and choked on the smoke, but most Americans were silent.
History records the violence perpetrated by the villains and the courage displayed by the heroes in each of these episodes. But history also remembers the brutal truth that many, many citizens stood on the sidelines for far too long in silent complicity with that era’s betrayal of America’s creed.
Donald Trump has long poured racially prejudiced poison into the already toxic political mire. For years, Trump questioned the nationality of our first black president. Trump announced his presidential campaign by labeling Mexicans crossing our nation’s southern border rapists and criminals. He proclaimed that all Muslims should be banned from entering the country. When his candidacy attracted the support of David Duke, former grand wizard of the KKK, Trump disingenuously feigned a lack of knowledge of Duke or white supremacy groups. During the campaign, Trump attacked the mother and father of a Muslim soldier who had given his life in service of this country, and he suggested that an Indiana-born federal judge could not fairly preside over Trump University litigation because of the judge’s Hispanic heritage.
Since his election, Trump declared that there were “fine people” among the neo-Nazis and white supremacists parading at Charlottesville. He has instituted family separations and mass imprisonment at our southern border and characterized Hispanic immigrants as invaders bringing infestation to our country. Trump has recently taken to attacking four young congresswomen of color, all of whom are American citizens; the current president of the United States insists they should “go back ... to the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.”
History will not treat kindly Trump’s ongoing efforts to generate personal political advantage by dividing Americans along lines of race, culture, national origin and religious belief. Trump’s appeals to fear and grievance, his scaremongering on immigration, and his ever-present sorting of people into groups of “us” and “them” will sooner or later settle into their well-deserved place on the ash heap of history occupied by George Wallace’s “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
But what about the rest of us? How will each of us appear in the unblinking reflection of time when history records the backward step of Trumpism in our country’s march toward achieving its founding declaration of the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal”? Will we be among our time’s equivalent to the wielders of fire hoses and billy clubs, or the targets of those attacks, or with the cowering multitude of quiet observers too timid to speak up for America’s principles?
Two weeks ago, Nebraska state Sen. John McCollister called out his own Republican Party’s silent complicity in Trump’s “obvious racist and immoral activity.” McCollister wrote, “When the history books are written, I refuse to be someone who said nothing. The time is now for us Republicans to be honest with what is happening inside our party. We are better than this and I implore my Republican colleagues to stand up and do the right thing.”
Sadly but predictably, this plea produced a suggestion from the executive director of Nebraska’s Republican Party that McCollister change his political registration to Democrat.
Thank goodness for John McCollister and others who reject the treachery that silence on Trump’s bigotry has become. We can be confident in history’s ultimate favorable treatment of McCollister’s conduct. Hopefully, more will emulate his courage and refuse to be silent betrayers of America’s promise.