By Al Sharpton
This weekend, the world watched tragedy unfold in Charlottesville, Virginia. A young woman, Heather Heyer, lost her life and at least 19 others were injured when a car rammed into a crowd of people gathered to counter white supremacist protesters. What occurred in Charlottesville is a horrific example of hatred unleashing itself on American streets in 2017.
But what we must keep in mind is that Charlottesville is a symptom and we must deal with the cause: hate, bias and racism have been empowered and taken from the margins into the mainstream. Now we must come to terms with the fact that the president of the United States has played a role in emboldening these hate groups to come out of the shadows.
Those of us in New York City have known for many years that Donal Trump is not above giving dog whistles to people and certain groups. In the 1980s, he bought full-page ads in four major newspapers calling for the death penalty to be reinstated in NY against five black and Latino kids in the Central Park jogger rape case.
These kids, known as the Centra Park Five, were later exonerated but Trump never apologized. He played on people’s fears and heightened racial division and tension then just as he did during the campaign cycle.
When Barack Obama, the first African American president of the United States, was in office, Trump kept pushing the conspiracy theory that Obama was not a natural-born US citizen and had the audacity to demand that Obama release his birth certificate, college transcripts, passport records and more. He continually pushed the idea that Obama was somehow not really an American. He was yet again sowing the seeds of division for his own advancement.
From the start of his campaign for the presidency throughout the election cycle, Trump made disparaging comments about minority groups and never once apologized for any of it. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you … they’re bring drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people,” he said when he first announced his run.
Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. (He altered this later but the message was already heard.) These kinds of disparaging comments were made throughout his campaign, and he did not denounce the support he was receiving from white supremacist groups and leaders.
Now, let’s take a look at his response to the tragedy in Charlottesville, which was effectively no response. As someone who has reacted to everyone and everything by name (including me), Trump’s inability to say the words KKK, Nazis or white supremacists right away –waiting instead until he was pushed to on Monday – was simply inexcusable.
He heavily criticized Obama and others for not using the words “radical Islam”, but didn’t name names until forced to do so two days later. These hate groups see this as the president giving them a pass. That is simply outrageous. Many of those at the “unite the right” protest were wearing Trump hats and “Make America Great Again” hats. It is the duty of the president to say that they do not represent him or his views.
Ministers and civil rights leaders like myself are not only disgusted by the lack of leadership in the current White House, but we are also tired of the silence of others. That is why we are mobilizing from the ground up and gathering in the nation’s capital on 28 August for a Ministers March for Justice.
Rabbis, imams and ministers will join together – 1,000 of us – as we push for continued civil and social justice rights, hold this administration accountable for its efforts to roll back progress and unite to show the world what America truly stands for. Those filled with hate gathered at the statue of Robert E Lee; we will gather at the statue of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
During these difficult and tense times, people look toward leaders to calm tensions and encourage people to come together against evil. When they don’t, that speaks volumes.
What we have just witnessed this weekend was a president who did more than just ignore the problem of white supremacy. He failed to immediately show the moral courage and leadership required by one who is the head of the highest office in the land.
- Rev. Sharpton is an American Baptist minister, civil rights activist and radio talkshow host