Published 6:00 a.m. ET July 29, 2020
A look at the life of congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis in his own words.
The White House insists on equivocating and diminishing the very real scourges of white supremacy and racism.
On July 17, the nation lost a giant who stood 5 feet, 6 inches tall. Rep. John Lewis risked his life to ensure basic rights for all Americans. He was known as the “Conscience of Congress.” I knew him as a respected colleague.
And while he has left us, his work to form a more perfect union remains in our hands.
Start with the brutal killing of George Floyd, the latest example of police overreaction in our urban communities. From Eric Garner to Breonna Taylor, the list of unarmed black citizens being met by deadly force has grown too long. Even Attorney General William Barr has admitted it.
One person who is not convinced is President Donald Trump.
When asked by a reporter why so many African Americans are dying from police interactions, he took offense: “What a terrible question to ask.” He added that “more white people” are killed by law enforcement.
Leave aside the fuzzy math (white Americans outnumber African-Americans by nearly four to one). It’s part of a disturbing pattern of presidential deflection and denial on matters of race.
After the deadly white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, President Trump said he “condemn(ed)” the “display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” He added that there “were very fine people on both sides.”
And while Trump denounced the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in 2018, he also tweeted that “Fake News” was stoking divisions. “They didn’t do that with President Obama” after the 2015 Charleston church shooting, Trump lamented.
The White House insists on equivocating and diminishing the very real scourges of white supremacy and racism. This stands in stark contrast not only to Rep. Lewis’ career, but to the Republican Party’s actions throughout American history.
GOP historically has fought racism
The GOP spearheaded Reconstruction, desegregated the federal government and fought alongside civil rights leaders for decades to institute anti-lynching legislation. An overwhelming majority of Republican congressmen and senators voted to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, ending Jim Crow.
The Republican Party has historically stood firm against violent white supremacists. While running for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan strongly disavowed the Ku Klux Klan.
And in 1991, Republicans nationwide banded together to deny David Duke, the former Klan leader, the governorship of Louisiana.
That leadership came from the top. “I believe he should be rejected for what he is and what he stands for,” said President George H.W. Bush.
Contrast that with Donald Trump. In 2016, Duke endorsed Trump for president, calling a vote against him “treason to your heritage.” Two days later Trump off-handedly disavowed the endorsement. Then he went on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“I don’t know anything about David Duke,” he told host Jake Tapper. “I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists.”
This followed Trump’s re-tweet of a pro-Hitler website that used the term “Jewmerica.”
Four years later, now-President Trump re-tweeted a supporter who chanted “white power.”
Americans deserve better leadership
This is not presidential leadership. This is not the strong anti-racist message Americans expect and deserve from their elected officials.
In 2000, the Church of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan decided to hold a rally in Carlisle, Penn. I was governor at the time. I joined a counter-demonstration that drew thousands of people eager to make a statement against hate. The Klan slunk away in defeat.
That solidarity is needed today. When the most popular cable news host in America calls white supremacy a “hoax” while employing a writer who anonymously posts the most vile racist messages online, we have a problem.
True leadership requires the courage to change and a willingness to reform. I oppose calls to defund the police and condemn violence disguised as protest.
But there is no question that we need to emphasize de-escalation tactics and improve day-to-day communication between law enforcement and law-abiding citizens. “To serve and protect” means exactly that.
Just as important, we must be unyielding when it comes to racism. That means full-throated opposition to white supremacy. No equivocations, no denials, no “winks” of support.
While we mourn Congressman Lewis’ death this week in Washington, we must also act. The GOP must police itself. It is time to disavow those who claim to support us while they disrespect everyone who doesn’t look like them.
Let our own consciences be our guide.
Tom Ridge was the 43rd governor of Pennsylvania and first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security.
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