Charlottesville. During the war, the direct fighting mostly missed this town. The people here instead supplied swords, uniforms and artificial limbs to rebel soldiers. A 500-bed military hospital tended to a total of 22,000 sick and wounded Civil War soldiers.
In 1861, the 19th Virginia Regiment recruited troops from here and lost 60 percent of its men in the Pickett Campaign two years later. In 1865, town leaders surrendered Charlottesville to General George Custer.
Custer. The Indian Killer. Better for him had he retired then.
The story of America is drenched in blood.
Someone told me that American history is like a badly knitted bone that can never set right until it breaks again. It’s going to hurt like hell. It already does.
Right now, I’m in Manchester, U.K., at a conference with street paper leaders from around the world.
“What the hell is happening over there,” is a common question.
And I draw a long breath and begin. American politics can’t be understood, I say, without understanding our racialized past.
The bloody sin of slavery, maintained here long after abandoned in Europe. The relentless genocide of the American Indian that has never really ended. The southwest expansion that stole Mexico and colonized the people to the south.
Race itself was invented in Colonial Virginia.
Serfdom and slavery were equal opportunity affairs in pre-revolutionary Virginia. Poor Whites. Poor Blacks. Indians. All were exploited past endurance.
Armed and united, they represented an overwhelming threat to landowners. Separated, racialized and turned upon each other, the poor were mostly defeated.
William Faulkner said it best. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Standing Rock. Charlottesville. Ferguson. The damned wall. Sheriff Joe Arpaio and all the people who admire him.
Donald Trump. The unapologetic racist son of a racist.
The legacy of America’s bloody history has thrived in the dark. And only bright and unrelenting light can bring this past to resolution.
German President Roman Herzog died this year at 82. He became president of Germany four years after reunification and is remembered for his insistence on bringing the Holocaust to memory.
Herzog called in his inaugural address for “an unadorned and candid look at the historical truth and the willingness not to dress it up or interpret it away.” He instituted an annual day of Holocaust repentance and reached out to those who had been harmed and sought forgiveness.
This work didn’t begin with Herzog. A post-war survey of Germans conducted by occupying allies found that about a third of the population retained anti-democratic and anti-Jewish ideas. An astonishing 83 percent believed Germany’s war crimes were on par with other nations.
But there was also a faith-based reconciliation effort that reached out to France and Israel. Germany’s first post-war chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, embraced and promoted this grassroots effort and backed it with the resources of the German government. Now, Germany is a model nation for confronting its shameful past and a genuine world leader for democracy.
America? Not so much.
Our schools enforce educational apartheid. Our justice system and policing is rooted in the history of slavery. Our system of mass incarceration continues the legacy.
Donald Trump is the logical extension of our historic denial.
There can be no equivocation when it comes to racial hatred. And it is clear that this is not post-war Germany. Our American nightmare continues.
Like the leaders of colonial Virginia, Trump uses race to keep the frustrated poor and working classes divided, distracted and hating the wrong people.
Trump is no Adenauer. He is a divider and a destroyer, manipulating racial resentment in the interest of a self-obsessed, kleptocratic ruling class. His failure to condemn Nazis and the KKK for violence is unforgivable.
So the responsibility for reconciliation and redress will have to come from elsewhere. It begins with each of us. The bone needs to break, so the healing can begin.
Tim Harris is the founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded the Spare Change homeless newspaper in Boston in 1992 while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
Wait, there's more. Check out articles in the full August 23 issue.
Real Change is reader supported. Just $5 a month provides work for more than 300 active vendors and keeps community journalism strong.