On the Edmund Pettis Bridge in 1965, a young John Lewis nearly lost his life for the right of every American to use their voice and vote. Yet, on the one-year anniversary of the civil rights giant’s death, we find the foundation of the democracy he fought for eroding under our feet. State legislatures across the country are rushing to make it harder for Americans to vote, while at the same time trying to prevent educators from teaching the full story of America’s history on race, both turning back the rights John Lewis fought for, and preventing future students from learning the full story of his struggle and contributions.
These anti-democratic trends are not new, but by gutting the Voting Acts Rights in 2013, the Supreme Court turbocharged the flood of restrictions we are seeing today. Until that fateful court decision, expansion of voting in the 20th century was a mostly bipartisan affair. President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. President Nixon signed the 26th Amendment, expanding the franchise to those 18 or over in 1971. President Reagan signed a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1982.
That bipartisan consensus is now gone. The reason? An anti-democratic faction has slowly but unmistakably gained strength in the Republican Party. It doesn’t represent most of the Republicans and conservatives I know, but the power of the faction was in evidence when Republicans in the Senate wouldn’t even allow a debate about how we make voting more accessible, despite the fact that wide majorities of Americans, including Republicans and independents, support such action.
Factionalism was something James Madison fretted about in the Federalist Papers for good reason. And factionalism is party agnostic. Democrats dealt with their own anti-democratic faction when a splinter group of the party who called themselves the Dixiecrats formed to oppose to the party’s moves toward Civil Rights in the late 1940s.
How did we get here? The backlash against the teaching of “Critical Race Theory” is illustrative. This cynical campaign has nothing to do with the academic theory itself, which is law school subject matter, and is rarely, if ever, taught in K-12 schools. The purpose of these bills is to stifle the teaching of our full history. Many of these bills are written so broadly that K-12 educators now question whether they can teach about the history of race in schools at all.
Why does this matter? Take Tom Hanks, who considers himself an amateur historian. He recently wrote: “But for all my study, I never read a page of any school history book about how, in 1921, a mob of white people burned down a place called Black Wall Street, killed as many as 300 of its Black citizens and displaced thousands of Black Americans who lived in Tulsa, Okla.” Yet last month, Oklahoma passed a law so broad that teachers doubt whether they will be able to talk about what happened in Tulsa at all.
As Heather McGhee, the author of the new book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Us and How We Can Prosper Together wrote recently, “People who are deliberately robbed of their shared history are doomed to be manipulated by those in power, again and again.”
That is exactly what it is happening across the country today. This attempt to prevent the teaching of race in schools is a coordinated effort to gin up fear and anger to advance political power for some at the expense of young people and their teachers. We’ve seen this movie before. Yet there are real consequences that go beyond any one election. Well-meaning parents of all backgrounds are being made to believe that teachers are instilling hatred of the country into their children when what they are attempting to do is teach the full story of America.
That is exactly what it is happening across the country today. This attempt to prevent the teaching of race in schools is a cynical, coordinated effort to gin up fear and anger to advance political power for some at the expense of young people and their teachers. We’ve seen this movie before. Yet there are real consequences that go beyond any one election. Well-meaning parents of all backgrounds are being made to believe that teachers are instilling hatred of the country into their children when what they are attempting to do is teach the full story of America.
There can be legitimate differences in views as to how we can best educate young people about the role of race in shaping our country, but I think most of us can agree that reckoning with the past is essential to making the country more just in the future. Gen. Mark A. Milley, the Trump-appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, appears to share that view. In a recent Congressional hearing, members of this same faction angrily questioned him about why members of the military were learning about white domestic extremism, claiming the military was becoming too “woke.” In response, Milley said: “I want to understand white rage, and I’m white. What is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America? What is wrong with having some situational understanding about the country we are here to defend?”
Patriotism isn’t about deliberately blinding ourselves to our flaws, it is about taking pride in the fact that America can always be better and that we have the power to make it so, just as John Lewis did. He marched for all of us, and with the backlash against racial justice gaining strength and speed, we are now called to march, speak out, and stand up in any way we can. Protecting every American’s right to vote and learn from our country’s past requires solidarity, no matter your race. When any American is denied the truth about our country or the means to change it, we all suffer.
In the coming months and years, I encourage you to hold close what John Lewis said: “Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”