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This weekend, as America honors The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s important to recognize that together we live in an increasingly fragile democracy trying to survive repeated onslaughts from irrational anti-American forces - onslaughts perpetrated by other Americans.
A democracy that, as former Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court John T. Broderick recently wrote ” …is at risk. Not from foreign enemies but from willful ignorance and unbridled ideology unconstrained by truth, decency or any democratic values …”
A democracy that failed Dr. King, a democracy that still fails far too many Americans.
In 1968, just three years after the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act - and just six months after Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee - racist, segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace stood on a stage at Madison Square Garden in New York City and told over 16,000 true believers:
“ … It’s a few anarchists, a few activists, a few militants, a few revolutionaries, and a few Communists… The American people are not going to stand by and see the security of our nation imperiled, and they’re not going to stand by and see this nation destroyed, I can assure you that.”
The demagogue’s true believers roared their support.
Support which columnist Richard Strout described: ”... never again will you read about Berlin in the 30s without remembering this wild confrontation here of two irrational forces … the ablest demagogue of our time, with a voice of venom and a gut knowledge of the prejudices of the low-income class.”
Wallace got 13.53% of the popular vote and carried five states; Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
There is irrational menace still corrupting the once-noble Republican Party formed in 1856 in part to expand federal authority to oppose slavery and polygamy; a party led today by a demagogue again feeding on the prejudices of followers and thriving because of the silence and fear of its intimidated and vanquished members.
"There comes a time when silence is betrayal,” Dr. King told us, words as true on MLK Day 2022 as they were when spoken, as America’s very survival as a democracy is at stake.
On January 6, 2021 that demagogue, promoting evil and seditious lies and unfettered by any sort of political pressure, incited an insurrection telling a delusional mob, “We won this election, and we won it by a landslide” and “If you don't fight like hell you're not going to have a country anymore.”
That demagogue’s true believers roared their support.
The evil they support is not just the “Big Lie” or the Insurrection. It’s the evil of antisemitism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia, of grievances and resentments, of ignorance and bigotry flourishing unchallenged by Americans lacking sufficient courage to speak out against what is being done in their name - or in the name of their party!
The evil they support are ongoing Republican actions to limit the franchise and reduce the voting power of people, primarily people of color and minority communities, at state and local levels.
The evil they support in their complicity is opposing the Freedom to Vote Act - which establishes minimum standards for ballot access for all American citizens - and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act which is designed to challenge discrimination in voting by updating and restoring the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The evil they support is not unknown. Indeed, Dr King wrote, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
"First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;' … who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a 'more convenient season.'"
Too many voices are silent today, I believe, because too many are unable to connect the violence of the present with the history and violence of the past; silent today, I believe, because comfort is more desirable than truth, because the absence of tension is more comforting that the presence of justice.
Today, as we face this existential challenge to our democracy, a nation founded on the principles that all people are created equal, that all yearn to be free, we must all either stand with Dr. King - stand with justice - or submit to the forces of intolerance and bigotry.
Robert Azzi, a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter, can be reached at email@example.com. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.
This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Azzi: On this Martin Luther King Day, too many voices are still silent