If America hasn’t broken your heart, then you don’t love her enough.
— Cory Booker
One of the joys of living in Washington, D.C., was the promise of spring days, with the cherry blossoms in bloom and friends arriving from out of town, all of them keen to experience the great monuments and sweeping vistas of the nation’s capital. Even the most jaded among them — modern architects, for example, who dismissed the entire city as a neoclassical theme park — could not mask their emotions when standing in the historic shadow of Martin Luther King, pausing on the stone steps that overlook the still waters of the Reflecting Pool, or staring at a black granite wall, polished to a mirror finish, as aging vets and heartbroken mothers reached out to touch the names of brothers and loved ones lost in the jungles of Vietnam. I took both pride and care in gently curating our outings, knowing from experience how much visitors could take, both physically and emotionally.
We began always with Maya Lin’s dark masterpiece and then, passing over Korea, much as history has done, made our way to the Lincoln Memorial. On one wall, etched in limestone, is the Gettysburg Address — the English language compressed to perfection. Equally inspired is the president’s First Inaugural Address, written for a nation torn by secession but not yet at war. Invoking “the mystic chords of memory,” Abraham Lincoln beseeched all Americans, north and south, to take time and reach for the “better angels of our nature.” That the country ignored his plea is etched in sorrow upon his face, carved in marble, in a massive sculpture that sits steady in repose, gazing half the length of the National Mall to the Washington Monument, which dominates the ceremonial heart of the capital. The axis mundi of democracy, it is the tallest stone structure in the world, dwarfing any obelisk ever conceived by the pharaohs of Egypt.
The monument stands on the heights of a broad grassy knoll, surrounded at the base by a circle of flags that represent the fifty states of the union, with its pyramidal capstone seeming to soar into the heavens. No building in Washington is allowed to be taller. Though built to honour the first president, it visually recalls the trials of the sixteenth, martyred and murdered in the wake of a national crisis that brought construction to a halt for twenty years. A distinct break in coloration — lighter below, darker above — marks the height where work stopped and was later resumed, as if the entire nation in the interlude had been indelibly stained by the blood of fratricidal war.
Across the Potomac River, some distance away, a hill rises to the mansion portico where Robert E. Lee once paced, lost in thought as he struggled to decide whether to command the Union army, at Lincoln’s request, or to serve the Confederate cause. History recalls his torment: loyal to the nation, yet incapable of betraying his beloved state of Virginia. Lee’s rebel forces would fight the Union for five years, in battles that left tens of thousands of dead. Many would be buried on land confiscated from Lee and his family, the only sanction to befall a man whose choice of sedition was singularly responsible for prolonging a war that brought misery to millions.
After Lincoln and all his sorrows, we would stroll around the Tidal Basin to reach the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, perhaps the most moving of all the monuments, both in design and in the power of its message. Just to stand in the cool shade of its soaring vault, with Thomas Jefferson’s words inscribed on white marble, was to rekindle a childlike faith in the great experiment that began a century before the agonies of civil war. Etched in the frieze below the dome is the perfect distillation of the Enlightenment: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” The words are taken from a letter that Jefferson sent to the doctor Benjamin Rush, in 1800, in which he rejects both state religion and the very notion of absolute faith, accepting belief in God but heralding rational inquiry, the triumph of reason over myth, science over magic. Intellectual emancipation, the defining spirit of the age, resonates in another passage that has long served as the moral charter of the United States, the second line of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men.” Finally, there is this: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”
These three statements, penned by the same hand, all breathlessly inspiring, nevertheless stumble over each other in a bundle of contradictions. In anticipating a great reckoning, as if willing into being the wrath of a God whose power he has rejected, Jefferson acknowledges slavery in a manner that, on the face of it, appears to challenge the very premise of the Declaration of Independence, as if suggesting such a foundational document had been disingenuous from its inception. How can a nation born in liberty tolerate human bondage? The dedication to inquiry so famously celebrated by the minds of the Enlightenment guaranteed that such a contradiction could never be concealed; the truth would fester like an open sore. Oddly enough, generations of Americans have found comfort in this confusion, grateful to know that Jefferson was at least aware of the conundrum and willing to acknowledge it in writing. Surely, such reasoning runs, the original sin of slavery was just one part of a whole, further evidence of the complex origins of a land of multitudes, then as now the best and worst of all things, a nation at odds with its past, yet always forging ahead toward a better tomorrow. Like so many, I long subscribed to this view, refusing to judge the past by the standards of today, at ease in the promise and contradictions that lie at the heart of the American experience.
Events over these last many months have surely challenged such complacency, raising any number of disturbing questions, many of which are explored in a brilliant and widely heralded book by the Harvard historian Jill Lepore. In These Truths: A History of the United States, she calls for a wrenching re-examination of the very idea of America. As surely as Dorothy’s dog, Toto, reveals the true identity of the Wizard of Oz, Lepore with both empathy and insight pulls back the veil on American history, leaving us with no choice but to think anew. What if the very language of freedom, for example, that gave birth to the United States of America had always been intended for whites alone? What if the nation was established on the presumption of racial supremacy, as if it were a law of nature, such that the universal rights of man as perceived by the founding fathers had, from their perspective, nothing whatsoever to do with the everyday atrocity of slavery? What if the disconnect we now recognize was not even an issue for Jefferson and his peers? If so, what does this say about America, and how might it explain events that haunt us to this day?
In trembling for his country, Thomas Jefferson did not advocate emancipation. His anticipation of the judgment of history, so solemnly spoken, did not stop him from mortgaging 140 of his own slaves with a Dutch bank to secure funds to build his palatial home at Monticello, in Virginia. When George Washington presided over the 1787 convention that established the U.S. Constitution, he remained a handsome, even heroic figure, save for his terrible teeth, which had been replaced with dentures made of wood and human ivory, nine teeth torn from the mouths of his living slaves. James Madison, who drafted the Constitution, complained that in order to buy a collection of books essential to his research, he had been obliged to sell a slave who had been his property since Madison himself had been but a child. And even as Abraham Lincoln, in 1861, invoked angels and called for compassion and kindness, he assured his fellow Americans that he was not inclined to interfere with slavery in the Southern states and had every intention of enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which mandated that any escaped slave, captured in any state of the union, would be forcibly returned to bondage. Angels, mystic chords, and iron shackles.
Many years ago, on a journey through West Africa, an American journalist and highly regarded colleague from the National Geographic Society casually remarked, as if stating a law of nature, that race is the story of America. At the time I didn’t believe it could be so simple, but lately I’ve wondered.
The English came late to the Americas. The Spaniards founded St. Augustine in 1565, Santa Fe in 1607. The French reached the island of Montreal in 1534 and by 1608 were building a fortress to dominate the St. Lawrence River at Quebec. Sir Walter Raleigh sent an expedition to the outer banks of North Carolina only in 1585. The following spring, Sir Francis Drake, with 300 Africans in chains, arrived to resupply the fledging settlement, only to find everyone desperate to leave. To make room on his ship, he was obliged to dump his unwanted cargo into the sea. Also left behind in the sand were the pathogens that would conquer a continent. When John Winthrop, founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, arrived but a generation later, he noted with pleasure that smallpox had swept away the Native people, a sure sign of divine intervention that allowed him to occupy an empty land as righteously as Abraham had displaced the Sodomites.
Winthrop and his Puritans were spiritual outliers, cut from the same cloth as many who washed ashore in those early years, members of sects that England denied and persecuted, zealots who came to America in search of freedom so that they might practise, without interference, their own forms of religious intolerance. Theirs was a dream of Zion. The inconvenient presence of people native to the land was resolved by disease, which ultimately killed 90 percent of the Indigenous population. Those who survived were simply erased from history, as colonists invoked Aristotle to argue that those who did not own the land in any manner recognizable to an Englishman were by nature slaves. Terra nullius — land belonging to nobody — was a fiction, but in time it both rationalized and propelled the settlement of a continent, and with it the dispossession and death of millions.
The colonial experience in New France was very different. There, in a northern land with more lakes than people, where winter dictated the mood, mercantile zeal drove an economy based on a fashion statement, the beaver hat. For its first 240 years, what would become Canada was not a settler society; it became such only in the mid-nineteenth century. The early French and later the Scots were by no means kind to Indigenous communities, but they never set out to slaughter them. Alliances with First Nations were essential to a trade that was, from the start, dependent on their knowledge and skills. Indeed, as John Ralston Saul has written, the fur traders did not murder the Indians; they married them and in doing so moved up in the world.
The Spaniards to the south had even less interest in settlement. Their imperial regime was based on extraction, plunder made possible by the wealth of the vanquished, the stolen treasures of a continent. The Crown deliberately mired its colonies in ignorance, if only to better exert control. Books and newspapers of any but Spanish origins were banned. No colonial subject could possess a printing press. By law, no man born in the colonies could own a mine or a vineyard, grow tobacco or olive trees, plant grapes or sell goods in the street, trade in gold, silver, copper, pearls, or emeralds, in leather, sugar, cotton, or wool, even in basic foods such as potatoes and tomatoes. None could travel without permission. Such oppression implied torment for the poor, degradation and dishonour for the rich, all but guaranteeing that in time the people would come together as a single revolutionary force, as they did in 1812 under Simón Bolívar, who forged an army from runaway slaves, landed gentry, and landless peasants. Miscegenation was the norm. As early as 1775, free Blacks outnumbered slaves throughout the Spanish possessions. Tradition dictated that the wealthy, with an eye to God, liberate their slaves in their wills. Complete emancipation came in 1826, a decade after Bolívar had freed his own slaves, something Washington did only at his death; Jefferson and Madison never did it at all.
Their America was all about settlement and always had been — settlement and slavery. Natives captured in war were sold in bondage to Caribbean plantations, including the nine-year-old son of Metacom, the great Wampanoag sachem who was drawn and quartered in Plymouth in 1676, his head mounted on a pike. Africans in shackles, crammed into holds slippery with blood and vomit, and great stores of indigo, tobacco, hides, and sugar to yield molasses and rum: these were the products of the Atlantic trade, a triangle of exchange that propelled the growth of all the colonies. There was no north and south. Half the wealth of New England was derived from sugar grown by West Indian slaves. In Virginia, liberty and slavery came into the world as if siblings, born in the same year, 1619, as landowners met in a legislative body, the House of Burgesses, and the first Africans came ashore in chains at Point Comfort. The Puritans of Massachusetts, the Dutch of New York, the Quakers of Pennsylvania all exploited slave labour. In the early years of the eighteenth century, half the households of New York possessed slaves; by 1776, they were fully a quarter of the population. The original wall for which Wall Street is named was built by slaves to enclose the site of slave auctions. The city itself is named for the Duke of York, the future king and founder of the Company of Royal Adventurers, an innocent name for an enterprise that carried 3,000 Africans a year to Barbados and Jamaica, each branded on the breast with the initials DY. In 1738 in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin published one of the first books to rage against the evils of the trade; at the time he was himself the owner of three slaves: Joseph, a boy, and Peter and Jemima, husband and wife.
The Revolutionary War presented a rhetorical challenge. In declaring that “all men are by nature free and independent,” George Mason, who drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights, added the caveat that such inherent rights accrue only to those who “enter into a state of society.” Naturally, since Africans would never have a place in society, they had no claim to liberty. Such intellectual contortions were convenient but complicated, especially as the British guaranteed freedom to any slave who joined the king’s armies to help suppress the rebellion. Madison’s grandfather had been poisoned by a slave. Washington’s slaves had been running away for a generation. During the war, the number of fugitives soared, as roughly one in five Africans, 100,000 altogether, tried desperately to reach the British forces; pregnant women, in particular, yearned to give birth behind the lines so that their children might be granted certificates of freedom. The colonial oppressor was, in fact, the facilitator of freedom. Washington responded by calling for a careful accounting of loss, so that owners might seek compensation for property carried off in British ships. He stood by as some 5,000 slavers scoured New York. Many runaways were caught, including a fifteen-year-old girl who was given eighty lashes, her punishment made worse by hot embers poured into her wounds. Others perished, including fifteen of the thirty who had fled Jefferson’s plantation. Altogether some 20,000 made it, including 5,327 who sailed out of Charleston, South Carolina, even as the city celebrated the British defeat.
With American freedom and independence, the slave population surged, the dark commerce prospering as never before: more than a million Africans arrived in the first decade of the young nation’s life, the largest importation in the history of the trade. While some states acknowledged the long shadow of the heinous institution, with talk of abolition growing even in the South, business and the banks doubled down on the profits to be made, especially as cotton boomed.
In 1791, the second of the great American revolutions broke out in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. War raged until 1804, when Haitian patriots, having defeated the finest armies of Napoleon, finally declared their independence. The response of the United States had been to do everything possible to aid the French. Arms, ammunition, and money flowed to the desperate colonial planters. Jefferson dismissed Haitians as “cannibals,” warning Madison that should such fury reach their shores, there would be much to fear. What Bolívar saw as a war of liberation — the Haitian government in time would fund his revolution on the condition that he free the slaves of Gran Colombia — Jefferson viewed as the first successful slave revolt in history. It was, of course, both. Many plantation owners fleeing the wreckage of Haiti found their way to the new lands opening up in Mississippi and Louisiana, where they rebuilt their lives in a flourishing slave economy. They brought with them tales of horror, bloodshed, rape, and pillage that steeled many a Southern heart, setting back the cause of emancipation for generations.
A moment that ought to have marked the death of an era, the formal end of the Atlantic slave trade in 1808, went hardly noticed in a land where cotton was king, and a booming domestic trade saw more than a million slaves from Virginia and the Carolinas shipped to the Deep South. By 1860, another million would be sent west. If slavery was the engine of the economy, cotton turned America into a financial juggernaut. Cotton was to the nineteenth century what oil became in the twentieth: the country’s greatest export and the world’s most valuable and widely traded commodity. Production doubled between 1815 and 1820 and doubled again by 1825. The value of slaves rose and fell with the price of bales quoted on the docks of Liverpool. Their bodies worked the fields but also created the plantations, felling vast swaths of forest, an endless process given the speed with which the crop laid waste to soils, with yields falling by the year, generating an endless demand for new land.
For this, the country had the right man in the right place at the right time. Andrew Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans, was no military genius, but he knew how to kill Indians. And that was his goal — to rid the entire American Southeast of their presence. His campaigns against the Seminoles, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek were little more than massacres. One of his first acts as president was to push through the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which condemned 60,000 men, women, and children to the Trail of Tears, a virtual death march whose survivors trudged west to settlement camps beyond the Mississippi. The tribes were forced to abandon millions of acres of traditional lands that were taken over by the government, only to be sold on the cheap to speculators, settlers, and slavers.
As forests fell, plantations spread, and cotton yields skyrocketed. In 1831, the country harvested 350 million pounds, half the global production; four years later, the figure was 500 million pounds. The value of a slave, a young man sold on the auction block in New Orleans, tripled in fifty years to some $1,600, roughly $50,000 in today’s dollars. Demands on labour increased as the plantations became every year more efficient and systematized. A field hand on average picked four times more cotton in a day in 1862 than his predecessor had done in 1800. Punishments reflected price fluctuations on the global markets. The key was the whip. A slave who ended the day five pounds short of his quota felt the deficit on his back — five lashes to make up for the lost production. It was an economy made possible by torture.
Looming over an expanding nation was always the problem of the West and the fate of new territories, all eager to achieve statehood. In 1848, in the wake of war, the country acquired a million square miles of what had been Mexico. America’s destiny hinged on a recurring question: Slave state or free? In Washington, politicians sought any number of compromises that only prolonged the agony. In a sop to the South, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 rendered no corner of the country safe for any person of colour; bounty hunters made a business of seizing even those born free, only to be sold into bondage. The Dred Scott decision of 1857, written by the country’s chief justice, Roger Taney, determined that Congress could not limit the expansion of slavery into any state, on the grounds that the founding fathers who wrote the Constitution obviously considered Africans “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
No “negro of the African race,” Taney wrote, as if acknowledging the preposterous, could ever expect to claim the rights and privileges of citizenship. If vile, the decision was at least honest. The highest court in the land had denied even the possibility of equality. This was the beginning of the great reckoning. “You may close your Supreme Court against the black man’s cry for justice, but you cannot, thank God, close against him the ear of a sympathising world, nor shut up the Court of Heaven,” Frederick Douglass said of the decision. “Slavery lives in this country not because of any paper Constitution, but in the moral blindness of the American people.”
Fear as much as greed now dominated the country. In 1859, the year John Brown rose up in open insurrection at Harpers Ferry, the state of Arkansas passed laws forcing all free Blacks to leave or suffer enslavement. Oregon, a free state, nevertheless instituted policies that segregated white from Black. In Washington, Congress invoked a rule banning debate on slavery, as if the topic was simply too explosive to discuss.
As the country moved toward civil war, Southern politicians left no doubt as to the essence of their cause. Even as Lincoln sought compromise, Jefferson Davis declared, “The condition of slavery is with us nothing but a form of civil government for a class of people not fit to govern themselves.” Anyone wishing to invoke states’ rights (or who recalls the avuncular Shelby Foote reminding the filmmaker Ken Burns that most Southerners didn’t own slaves and fought simply because the Yankees “was down here”) ought to consider a speech delivered in Savannah by Alexander Stephens, the Confederate vice-president, in which he clearly outlined the South’s aims. Whereas the U.S. Constitution rested on an assumption of equality among the races, Stephens began, “our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery . . . is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.” The Confederacy was not motivated by the rights of states; it was founded on the idea of supremacy.
The soldiers on both sides knew the truth. “The fact that slavery is the sole undeniable cause of this infamous rebellion, that it is a war of, by, and for Slavery, is as plain as the noon-day sun,” a Union soldier wrote in 1862. That same year, a Confederate wrote, “Any man who pretends to believe that this is not a war for the emancipation of the blacks . . . is either a fool or a liar.” Lincoln viewed slavery as an abomination, and he and some 360,000 Union soldiers offered up their lives to destroy the institution — a sacrifice that must surely inform any conversation about race in America, then or now. But as a politician, he walked a fine line. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it,” he wrote in a letter to the newspaper editor Horace Greeley, “and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it. . . . What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.”
With his eye on military victory, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, deliberately exempting the border states, which got to keep their slaves, thanks to their fidelity to the Union. Then, as now, there was nothing pure in politics. That same year, he invited a number of prominent Black leaders to the White House to discuss a scheme that would have all former slaves deported to Central America or shipped back to Africa, so certain was he that they’d never find a home in the United States. The president’s emotions, convictions, and calculations were as complex as the times in which he lived. But the Emancipation Proclamation, though excluding Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri, was a siren call of liberty, an irrevocable commitment that infused a struggling Northern cause with moral righteousness, while igniting a conflagration of hatred and fear throughout the South, which recognized such liberty as an existential threat. Mere possession of the document in the Confederacy was punishable by death. But sanctions did nothing to stop the long march to freedom. Politicians and pastors, overseers and auctioneers, ordinary soldiers and exalted generals all shuddered as former slaves flocked to the Union colours and became an army within an army — 186,000 men, each with memories of wickedness to avenge.
Union victory made possible the promise of a new nation. In the first years of Reconstruction, laws expanded civil liberties, prohibited racial discrimination, acknowledged a woman’s right to property, mandated free education for all, and reduced the severity of criminal sanctions. The Fourteenth Amendment gave the vote to former slaves and granted citizenship to anyone born on American soil. Black turnout in local and state elections throughout the South reached an astonishing 90 percent. Hundreds served in local, state, and federal government. In Mississippi, where for generations the killing of a slave had not constituted murder, two Black men were elected to the U.S. Senate. In a flash of spirit and hope, an Alabama convention declared, “The law no longer knows white nor black, but simply men.” Perhaps for a time, but not for long.
Mississippi proved to be a bellwether. A state that in 1866 dedicated fully a fifth of its budget to providing prosthetic limbs to veterans was not about to abandon its faith in the Southern cause nor in white supremacy. In neighbouring Tennessee, the very ghosts of the Confederate dead rose as if from the grave, avengers clad in white robes, a cult of terror and insurrection that included the scions of society, men of wealth, education, and influence, riding together under the banner of the Ku Klux Klan. In Colfax, Louisiana, armed vigilantes set fire to the county courthouse, burning alive those within and murdering those who fled, leaving behind more than 150 broken and charred bodies as a message to anyone foolish enough to believe in legal rights and the sanctity of the Constitution.
Laws were upheld at the discretion of the powerful, and in the South, this implied a series of racial codes that effectively re-established the economics of slavery, only in the guise of indentured labour and sharecropping. Black workers who left their jobs forfeited wages and were subject to arrest. In South Carolina, any Black person who sought work not as a farmer or servant had to pay a tax equivalent to $1,600. Debt peonage bound sharecroppers to the very families and plantations that had worked them as slaves. Men convicted of meaningless charges — invented crimes such as vagrancy or mischief — were held in chains and leased at no pay to enterprises eager to exploit prison labour. Children entered white households to be educated and civilized, only to be worked morning to dusk as unpaid servants.
Southern legislatures everywhere targeted Black suffrage with literacy standards and poll taxes that so effectively disenfranchised voters that by 1950, a century after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, only 7 percent of the Black people eligible in Mississippi were registered to vote. As for the Black voice in government, it was silenced. After John R. Lynch was defeated in 1882, nearly a century would pass before Mississippi sent another African American representative to Washington. Blanche Bruce, born a slave in Virginia but elected as a senator from Mississippi in 1874, stepped down in 1881; eighty-six years would pass before any African American again served in the U.S. Senate. After P. B. S. Pinchback of Louisiana left office in 1873, the United States would not elect another Black governor until 1990.
In a nation famous for backroom deals, perhaps the most infamous occurred in 1876, as Rutherford Hayes, in exchange for support in his bid for the presidency, agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South. Though now long forgotten, this ardent abolitionist and valiant soldier, wounded five times while fighting for the Union, chose personal glory over duty at a fulcrum of history. Ending the military occupation implied the end of Reconstruction. Hayes’s singular achievement as president was to reduce Blacks once again to servitude.
As the South rose from the ashes of defeat and humiliation, the horrors of slavery were subsumed by a new narrative, the Lost Cause. The war was reimagined as a story of sacrifice and honour, of men and boys dying to defend a way of life, an agrarian civilization far removed from immigrant hordes and industrial grime, where Blacks and whites knew their place in a land of contentment, order, and faith — all of it, as a novel and later a film would famously portray, gone with the wind. Central to the mythology was the notion that the Civil War had never really been about slavery; rather it was a battle for the rights of Southerners to defend their states, just as the founding fathers had envisioned in creating a federalist union. Viewed through this lens, the Confederacy had been the true heir of the American Revolution, its gallant armies, outnumbered in every battle, the forces of freedom, led by generals inspired by the gods — Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart, James Longstreet, and Lee.
The focus of adoration fell on Robert E. Lee, deified in defeat as, in the words of one Southern journalist, “among the finest human beings that has ever walked the Earth.” Remembered for his stoic dignity at Appomattox, his uncanny ability to vanquish vastly superior armies in the field, including a stunning series of victories at Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville that came close to winning the war, Lee was written into Southern history as a humble and decent Christian, who personally abhorred slavery and who worked tirelessly in the wake of defeat to bring together a broken nation. In time, his name would grace churches and hotels, military forts and theatres, more than fifty schools and universities, some eighty streets and public highways, eight counties, and scores of town squares in both the South and the North. His untimely death, in 1870, prompted an outpouring of grief, together with a flurry of construction, as statues of Lee and all the other legends of the Confederate firmament went up across the South.
Further burnishing Lee’s reputation was his familial connection to George Washington. His wife, Mary, was the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted son of the first president. But here the myth runs up against the historical record. Through marriage, Lee took on responsibility for the Custis plantation. His first move was to break a long-standing family tradition of never separating slave families, hardly a gesture of grace for one said to be appalled by the institution. Within three years, in fact, Lee had broken up every family but one. Those who escaped only to be recaptured could expect the most brutal treatment, with the lashings often administered by Lee himself, who insisted on brine being applied to the wounds.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Lee was a serving officer in the U.S. Army. His loyalty was to his state, as the story goes, but his decision to fight for the South suggests that in his most fateful hour, white supremacy, the bedrock principle of the Confederacy, trumped fidelity to country. Throughout the war, notably during the two invasions that climaxed at Antietam in 1862 and Gettysburg the following summer, Lee insisted that any Black person captured in the North, whatever his or her status, be carried south and returned to bondage. Black soldiers serving for the Union expected no quarter in battle; capture implied torture and death. Entire units were massacred. Not once did Lee intervene. When Ulysses S. Grant, in the waning days of the war, proposed prisoner exchanges without reference to race, Lee refused, noting that “negroes belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange.” As for easing the nation toward reconciliation by beseeching his fellow Southerners not to rise up in the wake of defeat, Lee did so only, according to Grant, in a manner “so grudging and pernicious in its effects as to be hardly realized.”
Lee survived the war by five years, serving much of that time as president of Washington College, later renamed Washington and Lee University. His actions once again belie the myth. Lee is on record as urging his fellow Virginians to hire only whites. In denouncing federal attempts to impose racial equality on the South, he argued against Black suffrage, on the grounds that no former slave could possibly vote intelligently. As college president, he stood aside as the campus established a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, soon renowned for kidnapping and raping Black girls from nearby missionary schools. When students twice rallied, ready to lynch innocent men on college grounds, Lee and his administration did not interfere.
Robert E. Lee was, in fact, a white supremacist to his core. As a general, he earned and certainly deserved the reverence of his soldiers, but as a man, he left a legacy soiled by both his actions after the war and the inconvenient truth that he led an insurrection against a government dedicated to liberation and freedom for all. And he did so in the name of slavery.
As the promises of Reconstruction grew more faint with each passing year, bigotry, hatred, and fear became ever more deeply entrenched, with legislatures throughout the South passing laws that separated Blacks from whites in every public space: churches and town squares, baseball diamonds and beaches. Named after a caricature, a Black minstrel from the stage, Jim Crow laws codified segregation, a cruel and unnatural perversion that was embraced as if a Biblical admonition. The immediate goal was to disenfranchise Blacks and take back any political or economic gains they had made immediately after the war. The longer view envisioned the distinct possibility that, having lost the war, the South might win the peace, even while avenging its own humiliation by condemning African Americans to the margins of American life. In 1881, Tennessee insisted that Blacks sit apart from whites in railroad cars; a decade later, Georgia expanded the law to include any form of transportation. Post offices and banks soon had separate windows; playgrounds, separate water fountains and swings; courthouses, separate Bibles. Cities passed zoning laws banning Blacks from entire neighbourhoods. Small businesses earned the right to refuse service to people of colour. In Alabama, it became a crime for a Black child to play checkers with a white child in a public park.
In 1892, a New Orleans shoemaker, Homer Plessy, who looked white but by racial law was said to be Black, challenged the authorities by taking a seat in a railroad car reserved for whites, much as Rosa Parks would do in a bus in Montgomery in 1955. Plessy, like Parks, would be arrested, but his criminal sentence would be upheld in an egregious Supreme Court decision that argued that separate facilities did not imply unequal facilities, thus denying that Plessy’s rights had been violated in any way. Separate but equal, a rhetorical sleight of hand utterly removed from reality, would go unchallenged for seventy years.
Plessy v. Ferguson marked another low point in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court. Not only did the 1896 ruling preclude legal challenges to segregation, it signalled the complete retreat of the federal government, virtually inviting retribution, as if announcing open season on Black people throughout the South. Several years later, the governor of Mississippi would proclaim with quiet confidence and no fear of sanction that “if it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched.” Outside Atlanta, a farm worker, Sam Hose, was cut up and barbecued, his body parts sold as souvenirs. The Tulsa race massacre, which in 1921 destroyed the wealthiest Black community in the United States, started with a lynch mob. Every four days on average, somewhere in America, a Black man was hanged or burned alive. Altogether, between 1882 and 1968, more than 3,400 men and women were tortured and lynched, their limp and broken bodies left to swing “in the Southern breeze,” as Billie Holiday would sing. “Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.”
In 1913, the same year that Woodrow Wilson imposed segregation on all departments of the federal government, he travelled to Gettysburg to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the battle that, more than any other, had determined the outcome of the Civil War. As two small armies of old men, dressed in blue and grey, merged into one, Wilson proclaimed, “We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten.” All around them, on both sides of the battlefield, scores of monuments had sprouted from the Pennsylvania earth, bronze and marble testaments that in their numbers invoked the scale of the forces that had clashed over three fateful days in that distant summer of 1863. Hovering over the ceremony was the spirit of reconciliation, and a comfortable consensus that the war had been a struggle over the destiny of the nation, the rights of states versus the power of a federal government, a crucible from which the country had emerged as a more perfect union, ready to take on what would become the American Century. There was no talk of slavery, nor was a single Black veteran invited to attend.
In just four years, Wilson would lead the country into a new and even more terrible war. More than 350,000 African Americans would serve, all in segregated units. Nearly 200 would be awarded the French Legion of Honour. In 1917, the year America entered the war, thirty Black men were lynched. The year after the Armistice, as the troops came home, seventy-six were strung up by white mobs, including ten veterans still dressed in their military uniforms. In 1920, a revitalized KKK boasted a membership of 5 million, a formidable force with a list of enemies and demons that had grown to include Jews and Catholics, immigrants and strangers.
Five years later, Earl Little, a Baptist minister, and his wife, Louise, were living in Omaha, Nebraska, where Louise had just given birth to a son, Malcolm. They were alone, mother and infant, when the Klan arrived, threatening to lynch her husband. The family fled to Michigan, where within months a mob torched their home. Earl was killed by a streetcar, a suspicious death later confirmed as a homicide. The life insurance company refused to pay out, leaving his widow penniless. The family survived on greens, mostly dandelions and weeds. In 1934, even as Louise struggled, fifteen African Americans were lynched, including Claude Neal, who was dragged from an Alabama jail and taken to Florida, where he was tortured and hanged before a cheering mob of 4,000. In the U.S. Senate, Southern politicians actively opposed a bill that called for an end to lynching. Politics was, at any rate, beyond the reach of African Americans; in 1936, less than 4 percent were registered to vote. With eight children to support, Louise Little broke, and in 1939 she was sent to an asylum. Her son Malcolm ended up in foster care, and then a home for delinquents, the first of a revolving series of institutional doors that ultimately led to prison, where he found his salvation in religion. He changed his name to Malcolm X.
America returned to war in 1941. More than 1.2 million African Americans enlisted, only to be relegated to menial duties, servicing the front. None were permitted to join either the Army Air Forces or the Marine Corps. In the factories, they were segregated from whites. In Detroit, barricades on the streets kept Black families from moving into public housing projects. A billboard read, “We want white tenants in our white community.” In Virginia, two Army sergeants refused to give up their seats on a bus. Both were beaten and jailed, as was an Army nurse in Alabama, her nose broken by a policeman when she refused to move to the back of the bus. Charles Drew, then head of the Red Cross Blood Bank, found a way to preserve blood, an innovation that would save thousands of soldiers, white and Black, wounded in battle. The Red Cross heralded his discovery but refused to accept donated blood from African Americans, for fear of racial mixing by transfusion. Drew, who was Black, resigned in fury. The humiliation knew no bounds. When the war ended, Black men who had fought and watched their brothers die were banned from the American Legion and excluded from the GI Bill, which provided every white veteran with a free college education. In 1946, a veteran was lynched in Georgia; a year later, another in Louisiana.
As late as 1950, fully 80 percent of African Americans in the South had no way to vote. Activists led by Thurgood Marshall turned to the courts. In 1954, in a seminal ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, the chief justice, Earl Warren, determined that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” This single phrase broke the back of segregation. The South responded with death threats and calls for Warren’s impeachment. Governor George Wallace offered to block the doors of the University of Alabama with his own body, rather than allow any Black student access to an integrated education. Having lost a previous election, he vowed that “no other son of a bitch will ever out-nigger me again.” In 1962, with the help of a speech writer recruited from the Klan, Wallace won 96 percent of the vote. In his inaugural address, he invoked Jefferson Davis and proclaimed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Faced with court action that ordered the integration of public swimming pools, the city of Montgomery decided to simply drain them.
The fight moved from the courts into the streets, with the Montgomery bus boycott, the first sit‑ins, and the radiant oratory of Martin Luther King. Television brought to the conscience of a nation horrific images of dogs being unleashed on peaceful protesters, children beaten at the doorways to schools, a bus in a torch of flames as a mob screamed hysterically, “Let’s burn them alive.” Alabama’s governor, John Patterson, told one of Robert Kennedy’s aides, “There’s nobody in the whole country that’s got the spine to stand up to the goddamned niggers except me.”
The optics were not good, neither at home nor abroad. It was the height of the Cold War. America advertised itself as the bastion of freedom. Yet when the finance minister of Ghana dropped by a Howard Johnson’s in Delaware to order an orange juice, he was denied service. The Haitian minister of agriculture, invited to Mississippi to attend a conference, was not permitted to stay in the host hotel. Racial discrimination, acknowledged Dean Acheson, the secretary of state, challenged the country’s ability to lay moral claim to the leadership of the democratic world.
In June 1963, John Kennedy addressed the nation and told the truth:
When Americans are sent to Viet-Nam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only. . . . If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?
Two months later, some 250,000 marched on Washington in support of civil rights, then the largest demonstration ever to gather on the National Mall. As King rose to the podium, Kennedy was listening. Moved by the multitudes, the Baptist minister tossed aside his prepared remarks and spoke as a prophet, sharing a dream of redemption and hope that would resonate through history. It was the first time the president had heard a complete speech from King. Words soared as if sounding the very bells of freedom. Everything changed. Kennedy was moved to act. But within three months, he would be dead, shot down by a white assassin.
Malcolm X rejected King’s call for nonviolence, for the tactics of sit‑ins and peaceful protest. “Anybody can sit,” he declared. “It takes a man to stand.” In just over a year, he too would be dead, his body riddled by twenty-one bullets, including fifteen fired at point-blank range.
Fourteen days after the assassination of Malcolm X, John Lewis and several hundred marchers approached the Alabama River in Selma, on their way to Montgomery. Ahead of them was the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a Confederate general and KKK leader. At the time, Blacks were a third of Selma’s population, but just 1 percent of eligible voters. As the protesters crossed the bridge, they were assaulted by 500 state troopers, some mounted on horses, others with dogs. The entire country watched on live television and bore witness to an onslaught that would become known as Bloody Sunday. In Washington, Lyndon Johnson leveraged the outrage to secure passage of the Voting Rights Act, which became law on August 6, 1965. Five days later, riots erupted in Watts, in South Central Los Angeles. Martin Luther King flew to California and called for calm, but no one listened. The state mobilized a small army — 14,000 members of the National Guard — to quell the unrest.
For the next four summers, the nation went to war with itself. Urban riots, invariably sparked by police violence, left inner cities aflame. On television, it was difficult to distinguish the chaos and looting and explosions in Newark and Detroit from the reports being broadcast from the crumbling cities under siege in Vietnam. In the Black neighbourhoods of Detroit, more than 7,000 African Americans were arrested, even as some 2,000 buildings went up in smoke. To restore order, the government sent in 9,600 paratroopers of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions. Some of the same soldiers who were deployed to Detroit would later serve in Vietnam, where African Americans, though a tenth of the national population, made up a quarter of the military force, with some airborne combat units being majority Black. Many of those charged with arresting and, if necessary, shooting young Black men in Detroit were themselves Black and destined to die in a pointless frontal assault at Hamburger Hill.
As the images of Vietnam came home, those in the inner cities turned to violence. In Newark, a city that was 65 percent African American, eighteen babies died of diarrhea in a single year in a hospital infested with bats. In Watts, where 35,000 took to the streets, there was no hospital. In 1967, the year Detroit burned, thirty Black Panthers armed with pistols and shotguns entered the California State Capitol in Sacramento during a debate on gun control. Opposing the measure, Bobby Seale invoked the Second Amendment with a rationale that most certainly was not on the mind of James Madison when he drafted the Bill of Rights. “Black people,” the activist declared, “have begged, prayed, petitioned, demonstrated, and everything else to get the racist power structure of America to right the wrongs which have historically been perpetuated against black people. The time has come for black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late.” Through the long lens of American history, this reads as a reasonable and truthful observation, save perhaps for the last line. But for those in the comfortable suburbs, they were the words of a terrorist, and a Black one at that.
In April 1967, Martin Luther King broke with Lyndon Johnson and came out against the Vietnam War, ending a complicated dynamic that had made possible both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Broken by the war, the president stunned the country a year later when he announced that he would not seek re-election and would instead dedicate his remaining months in office to finding a way to end the conflict. Four days later, King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis. The killer was an ex‑con, an avowed segregationist, and an avid supporter of the presidential candidate George Wallace. The Black activist Stokely Carmichael described King’s murder as an act of war and encouraged anyone who would listen to go home and get their guns.
In Indianapolis, word of the assassination reached Robert Kennedy just as he was about to address a large African American audience. The news rolled like a dark wave over the adoring crowd, ecstatic in one moment, crushed with grief in the next. From the back of a flatbed truck, the former attorney general and Democratic candidate for president said that he knew what it was like to lose a brother. He urged everyone to go home in peace and pray for the King family. Then, from memory, he recited lines from Aeschylus: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” That night, Indianapolis was the only major American city that did not burn. Two months later, Bobby Kennedy, having won the California primary with a clear path to the White House, was shot dead as he left the stage of his victory celebration at the Ambassador Hotel.
The country cleaved in agony. The endless war, the cities on fire, children in every home growing up to the annual rhythm of assassinations, their older siblings taking to the streets, taking drugs, turning on their parents, their country, their world. Social movements capitalized on the turmoil as women began their long march from the kitchen to the boardroom, gay men from the closet to the altar, people of colour from the woodshed to the White House. Though inspiring to some, the very speed of such transformations inevitably proved unsettling to most, those who still lived by simple truths and loyalties — family, God, country.
Rising from the ashes of his own despair, the shadow of his failures, Richard Nixon took hold of this fear and turned it into a political movement. Here was a politician who understood the potential of fear, the power of hate. Mobilizing uncertainty, he heralded the silent majority — an invention that he defined as the real citizens, implying that anyone living outside of the norm was deviant. Though caring little about drug use, as John Ehrlichman, his closest domestic adviser, later acknowledged, Nixon in 1971 set in motion the War on Drugs, strictly as a political ploy. The goal was to galvanize his base, using hippies, Blacks, students, and anyone against the war as personal foils, playing a new and expanded card that went beyond race. Nixon was a master when it came to poisoning the hearts of his followers. Communism, drugs, and the Devil grew into one great demonic threat. A trillion dollars would be spent, and fifty years on, there would be more people in more places using worse drugs in worse ways than at any time since the beginning of Nixon’s misguided crusade.
The greatest folly in the history of public policy would leave the United States the only developed country where there are more citizens with criminal records than with university degrees. By 2018, African Americans, just 13 percent of the population, filled 34 percent of prison cells, in good measure because white politicians had made sanctions for possession of crack cocaine a hundred times more severe than for powdered cocaine. Pharmacologically, they are two forms of the same drug. One is smoked, the other snorted. The only other difference is marketing. Crack sells at a per-unit price that puts it within reach of those living in the inner cities; cocaine retails by the gram at prices most convenient to those in boardrooms.
Then, in the seesaw of hope and despair that is America, Barack Obama, son of a Black father and a white mother, grandson of Africa and scion of Harvard, with a gift for oratory and a profound understanding of what words can do, rekindled the nation’s better dreams and reached the White House.
In New York, Donald Trump began his own foray into politics with slander, floating the lie that Obama was born in Kenya and thus disqualified from serving as president. Trump had the resources, instincts, and personality to turn defamation into conspiracy, single-handedly fuelling a cult belief in “birtherism” as he toyed with fantasies about his political future.
Trump inherited both his values and his money from his father, Fred, a landlord to the middle class, who instructed his son to mark housing applications from African Americans with a C, for coloured, as a way of excluding them from any Trump property. Donald’s older brother, rejected by their father as being too soft, turned to drink; he dreamt of becoming a pilot. Donald, by contrast, became his father’s image. As a casino owner, he would order his managers to remove any Black guests from the floor when he and his wife wanted to play the slots. When five young men of colour were accused of raping a white woman in Central Park, Trump took out full-page ads in the New York tabloids and called for their executions. Twelve years later, new evidence proved their innocence. The courts awarded $41 million as compensation for their false convictions, which the plaintiffs claimed was little more than a “racially motivated conspiracy.” Trump once again took to the newspapers, insisting without evidence that the so‑called Central Park Five remained guilty. He published their names, phone numbers, and addresses, as if inviting mob violence. Lawyers close to the case compared Trump’s actions to a call for lynching.
In the Oval Office, Trump referred to African countries as “shithole” nations, noting that immigrants from places like Nigeria, having experienced America, would never want to “go back to their huts.” In his first year as president, hurricanes of equal force devastated Texas and Puerto Rico; in nine days, Trump dispatched three times the workforce and twenty-three times the relief money to Houston, leaving Puerto Rico in the dark. In February 2017, the city council in Charlottesville, Virginia, voted to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee. Six months later, a mob of neo-Nazis and heavily armed militia members rallied to hear, among other speakers, David Duke, the former head of the Ku Klux Klan. They marched through the night with torches aflame, shouting the very slogans of Hitler’s brownshirts: “Jews will not replace us!” “Blood and soil!” A Black man, DeAndre Harris, was beaten by six thugs. A young woman, Heather Heyer, was killed and thirty-five others injured when an avowed white supremacist drove his vehicle into a crowd of counter-protesters. Two days later, with the country in shock, Trump remarked that there had been “blame on both sides. . . . You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
In truth, what Charlottesville revealed was white nationalism on the march, in the open, without shame, as infused with righteous certainty as were the secessionists of the Confederacy, the lynch mobs of Tennessee. United by nostalgia, wistful for a lost age of Christian power, with a profound sense of victimization, knowing that the truth is whatever they wished it to be, they marched with eyes wide open, infused with fury.
On January 6, 2021, several thousand like-minded patriots, incited directly by Donald Trump, stormed the Capitol in Washington and openly violated the heart of American democracy. En route, they paused to pray under banners that declared, “Jesus is my savior. Trump is my president.” None would admit that Trump had been decisively defeated at the polls.
As they marched up Pennsylvania Avenue, they beseeched God to bring an end to the “evil of Congress.” They pushed past the Capitol police, breaking through doors and windows, trashing offices and smashing furniture. A woman was shot, another trampled by the mob. An officer was killed, his head crushed with a fire extinguisher. Another was dragged down a set of stairs and beaten with a pole wrapped in an American flag. Altogether, fifty officers were injured and fifteen hospitalized. There was feverish talk of coups and sedition and the overthrow of democracy. But at the end of the day, only one shot was fired — the bullet that killed Ashli Babbitt. Once the building was breached, the Trumpers for the most part appeared to be uncertain of what to do. They wandered the corridors, milled about in the halls, gathered beneath the vaulted arches and domes of a building that many had seen only on television. Mostly, they photographed themselves. If this was a coup d’état, it was revolution as a selfie — the American state assaulted by iPhones.
What was most haunting was not what the trespassers did but how they were treated. On video the police can be seen chatting them up, not unlike security crews at a rock concert confronting a raucous audience. There was pushing and shoving, but no one was beaten, dragged by the hair, sprayed with mace, or pounded unconscious. Such treatment, apparently, was reserved for those protesting in favour of racial justice, such as the young men and women, white and Black, who had marched in the streets of the capital the previous summer. One can only imagine what their fate would have been had they stormed the halls of Congress and violated the inner sanctum of political power.
On the night of the attack, eight Republican senators and 137 representatives, many of whom had been seen on camera earlier in the day cowering in fear of Trump’s mob, voted in support of spurious accusations of voter fraud, in lockstep with a president who had just instigated an assault on the very symbol of American democracy. Defeated at the polls, the Republicans soon turned their focus to voter suppression, imposing new barriers to casting votes, gerrymandering congressional districts, outlawing private donations that provide resources to oversee the fair administration of elections, doing whatever they can to impede turnout in future elections in predominantly Black and Hispanic, predominantly Democratic strongholds. In Georgia, this has meant a push to limit early voting on Sundays, to eliminate a long tradition of African Americans heading to the polls after church. No tactic is too callous or trivial.
The motivation is clear. In a manner that goes beyond any one candidate or any election cycle, the party of Abraham Lincoln has become the party of white grievance, clinging to power by invoking a darkness that has always existed in the American reality. What long lay hidden, Trump’s rhetoric made fashionable, shattering the boundaries of discretion and decorum in the flaunting of prejudice and bigotry.
Perhaps the demographics made it inevitable. The white majority will soon become a minority. For many Americans, as history attests, this presents an existential challenge. What becomes of white Americans when their country is no longer majority white? What becomes of Christianity when its most vocal practitioners remain deaf to Christ’s call for charity and mercy for all? And what of his warning in the Book of Matthew that those who turn their backs on the stranger and deny help to the needy will be banished from his side and cast “cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”? Surely no spiritual text has ever been more selectively read than the New Testament in the hands of white evangelicals of the political right.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed,” James Baldwin wrote decades ago, “but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” What, indeed, becomes of America when it faces the mirror of its exceptionalism only to see glass shards scattered on the Rotunda floor? The four dark years of the Trump presidency were not anomalous; they were consistent with all that has transpired over a long history. The anger, the racial hatred, the scapegoating, the violence, the lies and delusions, the rhetoric and bullying, the fundamental weakness on display, all the contradictions — it is as if nothing has been learned, nothing has been resolved, and the structural divide between Black and white remains as wide as the chasm between a nation’s foundational myths and its reality.
George Floyd, in Minneapolis, was just one more body piled upon the heaps of dead, the tens of thousands of victims of America’s original sin. His final words were the last gasp of a nation that has never come clean about its past, a country no longer able to breathe, that may never be able to breathe unless it comes to another great and transcendent reckoning, a cleansing of the national soul, a purification that all the fires of all the wars have not yet managed to achieve. Floyd’s killer was found guilty, and perhaps that’s a step toward justice. But since Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, nearly 200 Black men and women have died as a result of police violence. Though a small portion of the population, African Americans account for 18.7 percent of such killings; whites and Hispanics, fully 76.3 percent of the country, just 37 percent. The data tells the story. This is America as it is and has always been.
James Baldwin also saw reason for hope all those years ago. “To accept one’s past — one’s history — is not the same thing as drowning in it,” he wrote. “It is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.” And then he added perhaps the most promising words of all, words that could serve as a charter for a nation that, at long last, aspires to become the country it has long purported to be:
If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create the consciousness of the others — do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.
Perhaps one day words such as these will be inscribed in gleaming white marble on the National Mall. Those of Martin Luther King are already there, etched on a memorial the very idea of which would have been unimaginable in his lifetime. It is here that my modest tours of Washington now end, in a sea of Americans of every creed and colour who have made it one of the most visited sites in the city, surpassing in popularity those dedicated to Jefferson and Washington. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness,” the words read; “only light can do that.”
King opposed both racism and the system that produced the racist. And though three out of every four Americans disapproved of him at the time of his death, he believed that redemption was possible, that men and women tortured by sin and hatred could be turned to the light, that even the most vile could lay down their burden of bias and bigotry. “We shall overcome,” his words on the National Mall continue, “because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Here surely is the promise of America, a potent yet imperfect place, with a story that, mercifully, is still being written.
Wade Davis is a cultural anthropologist, ethnobotanist, and photographer. His many books include Magdalena: River of Dreams.
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