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Progressive Voice: March 1965 to August 2017

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or

By Paul Friedman

It was said by some that Barack Obama’s election and presidency was a reflection that America had become a post-racial society.

For many people, that was a positive, hopeful – albeit optimistic — statement. For others, it was a reason to discredit diversity and inclusion efforts and declare that institutional racism no longer existed; that discrimination against people of color could not exist in a land that had elected an African American president.

For still others — including President Donald Trump – President Obama’s election was illegitimate. It was the culmination of societal change favoring people of color and foreigners at the expense of white Americans who had made this country great. President Obama was to be opposed and delegitimized. The attack on white America was to be exposed. America was to be made great again.

These forces led to the election of Donald Trump. In August 2017, they led to the invasion of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia by white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the KKK. They led, in turn, to a President signaling support for those invaders.

What a far cry from March 1965, when America recoiled from the racism of state police nearly killing marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. The brutal display – almost exactly 100 years after the end of the Civil War – led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The post-racial society illusion would underlie a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court 5-4 decision stripping the Voting Rights Act of Section 4, one of its most important provisions that required certain states to get advance federal approval before making any changes impacting voting.

Led by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court claimed that states with a long history of slavery, segregation, racism and voter suppression had evolved and were no longer in need of close federal supervision. Contrary to the Chief Justice’s unjustified and convoluted logic that Section 4 was no longer necessary, the result of the decision has been a concerted push to eliminate from the voting rolls African Americans and other people of color.

Those who felt the need to oppose and delegitimize President Obama provided the political catalyst for Donald Trump, who boldly launched his campaign against President Obama in March 2011 on “The View” by asking: “Why doesn’t [Obama] show his birth certificate? There’s something on that birth certificate he doesn’t like.”

On Fox News five days later, he said, “I’m starting to wonder myself whether or not he was born in this country.” Two days later, he went on Laura Ingraham’s radio program and declared: “He doesn’t have a birth certificate, or if he does, there’s something on that certificate that is very bad for him. Now, somebody told me … that where it says ‘religion,’ it might have ‘Muslim.’ And if you’re a Muslim, you don’t change your religion, by the way.”

Off to the races, Trump has not looked back. He initially declined to disavow the support of David Duke. He used Twitter to send coded messages, sometimes via his family members, about his support for racists and anti-Semites – amazingly despite his daughter becoming Jewish, marrying a Jew and raising Jewish children.

Then, in the wake of the hatred and anti-Semitism on display in Charlottesville, America saw its elected national leader take his strategy, and the expression of his personal views, to a whole new and previously unthinkable level. President Trump actually said that there were “many fine people” among the neo-Nazis and KKK’ers despite videos of them chanting racist and anti-Semitic epithets as they marched with torches. He has not backed away from his statement.

And he wants to ensure that we keep monuments in place to uphold our “heritage.”

Think back to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 1965. Pettus served as a Confederate general during the Civil War. After the war he was a Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan and a Democratic U.S. Senator. The bridge was named for him in 1940 to send a message of support for his involvement in the KKK. It was one of many such acts by those seeking a return to a world in which white people were viewed as superior to African Americans in the law and in daily interactions.

Is this the heritage President Trump wants to preserve?

We have an opportunity in Virginia in 2017 to send a strong signal to President Trump that his vision does not reflect our values. I hope voters will send that signal on November 7.

Paul Friedman is an attorney and a long-time resident of Northern Virginia. He has been active in nonprofit organizations, civic organizations, and as a business consultant. He is currently the Executive Director of a national advocacy organization.

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