I am guilty. I should have known better. I thought that the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent state and federal legislation would change America. I believed that the majority of white Americans would accept the premise that civil rights were meant for all Americans, black and white, Asian-Americans, every citizen. The election of an African American president in 2008 I thought was the beginning of a new era. I was wrong.
I am guilty of the optimistic belief that the United States of America moves onward to democracy for all its citizens, that the welfare of its citizens includes the lowest income, ill-educated, and the attitude “That we are all in this together.”
I am almost 82 years old, taught history for many years, researched and wrote articles and a few books, thought I had read extensively, experienced events if not present, vicariously. I talked to people, I read the newspapers, I watched television, listened to the radio. I heard and saw commentators and other citizens spewing hatred of others, sometimes these were political figures, elected by citizens, just like me.
And then, on Jan. 6, 2021, a mob of insurrectionists attacked the halls of Congress, fully cognizant of what they were doing, thinking they were beyond the bounds of the law and human decency. They invaded offices of elected officials, defecated and urinated in hallways, ransacked offices as Congressmen of both parties ran for their lives.
This was not a scene from a “banana republic” or a made for television horror movie, but happening right there, in real time, in the most consequential of places. I have the greatest respect for Vice-President Michael Pence. He came back to the House of Representatives and did his duty.
I should have known what was brewing.
A few days after the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma, it was revealed that this was a domestic terrorist crime. In one of my American History classes at Eastern Kentucky University, the subject came up primarily because this was a domestic crime and not like the 1993 “foreign born” attack on the World Trade Center. The class room was packed with what I thought were typical EKU students. A few students remarked about the senseless killing of 168 Americans, including children at a day care center. Do you recall the picture of the fireman carrying a young child in his arms?
A young man in the back of the room raised his hand. “Sometimes these things are necessary,” he said. All the other students immediately turned toward him. He did not follow up the remark and the class grew silent. I went on to another topic of the day. Thankfully, the young man withdrew from the class a few days later.
This was my first personal introduction to the right-wing America. Later, while attending a Sunday School class in a Texas Baptist Church, I told the men in attendance that I had been moved to tears when my wife and I visited the Oklahoma memorial, particularly the small chairs representing the children who died in the bombing. I was met by the stony-faced stare of several men who obviously did not share my compassion.
So, I am guilty of optimism. I fear for the future of the United States. We are not united. No one person could do this, I thought. I was wrong. Donald Trump exemplifies all that is hateful in politics, and every day life. I thought that Republican legislators would stand up to him and his throng after January 6. But I was wrong.
A few of the insurrection mob will do a little jail time. If elected in 2024 Donald Trump will pardon them.
My faith in the UNITED States of America was ill-founded. I am guilty of optimism and a belief in an American spirit that transcends race, religion, and creed. I was wrong.
William Ellis is a retired Eastern Kentucky University history professor.