“‘We killed two-month-old Indian babies to take this country’, one white voter explained succinctly to the press ‘and now they want us to give it away to the niggers.'” – Pillar of Fire, America in the King Years 1963-65
Today, such a blunt quote may seem shocking to many Americans, but in 1963 Mississippi white nationalists had all the power, and so had no need to mince words. Their agenda was no less racist and intolerant then than it is today, but nowadays most of those who spread a message of white superiority are intelligent enough to know that the times we live in call for subtler language.
I was speaking with a friend of my sisters recently at her house in Georgia. She’d grown up in Mississippi as a white child, and outlined for me her increasing shock as she slowly discovered the systemic racism around her. She described one incident in which she was told shortly after puberty that she shouldn’t be hanging out anymore with her black male friend who she’d known from the time they were both in kindergarten. The reason given was that “people were starting to talk”. When I questioned her further, she stated that she was advised that there may be repercussions for her father’s job if she continued to be seen with this young man.
This was in the 1980’s.
She also described how she literally had no exposure to any other religion than white fundamentalist Christianity, until a Japanese exchange student showed up at her school. Few would befriend this girl, but her decision to do just that began her path out of a closed, sheltered world where intolerance reigned supreme, and into the idea of America as a diverse nation deriving its freedom from our ability to live together and cooperate with all races, faiths, and orientations in a healthy manner.
Our conversation then drifted to modern day, as she described her dating struggles. Specifically, her difficulty in finding a man in the South who didn’t believe with conviction that the country should continue to support monuments to Confederate leaders and the Confederate rebellion. Having grown up in the North, I asked her a pointed question: “Do you believe that these Confederate monuments and organizations are treasonous?”
And if I’m being honest, I half expected that she might not go that far. That she might try to backtrack on applying such a harsh word to what was done by the Confederacy in 1861. And here’s why: because as a white Northerner, I was taught to follow the example of Lincoln. To apply tolerance to the Confederate viewpoint, and allow for a different perspective on life. To be open to considering the depth of suffering that happened on both sides during the Civil War, and the depth of passion by each side for their version of events. And to acknowledge that there’s just as much racism in the North as in the South.
I therefore believed that her perspective might not allow her to view the Confederate acts of war – and thus the monuments to those actions – as treasonous.
It was her blunt answer that shifted something in me. She not only gave a resounding “Yes” to my query about treason, but proceeded to back up her affirmative response with detailed examples. She was filled with a passionate joy that somebody finally “got” what she’d been feeling for years. This wasn’t a person who was just placating me because she already knew my stance on the topic. She’d had enough of white supremacy too – and, having grown up in the South, she understood perhaps better than me the root of its ability to spread its tentacles far and wide:
In Lincoln’s quest for tolerance, he failed to set the necessary boundaries against intolerance with those who chose to attack the United States. Confederate leaders committed acts of war that were directly responsible for at least 650,000 people dying, and did so in order to avoid seeing the “state right” of slavery being compromised away in favor of a humane system. By failing to prosecute them for this treason – treason committed in the name of a belief that a racist, inhumane system is a “state right” – Lincoln swung the door wide open for healthy boundaries against intolerance to instead themselves be labeled intolerant by those seeking to dodge responsibility for their destructive actions. Too many well-meaning white Americans have been buying into this farce that convinces us to tolerate racist intolerance ever since.
“You get what you tolerate.”- Dr. Henry Cloud
About a year prior to my September 2019 conversation with my sister’s friend, I moved from my lifelong residence of Ohio, down to Texas. Since my move, two black people in the Dallas-Ft.Worth area named Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson have been murdered by white police officers while inside of their own homes and committing no crimes.
In Dallas, in Ft. Worth, in Texas, in the United States we must collectively stop buying into the farce of those who scream out “intolerance” whenever they are called out on their own intolerant actions. This powerful space of saying “never again” is one in which white supremacy and all forms of racism are forced to retreat and lay down their weapons of destruction.
As seen in the opening quote to this article, tolerance for that which is intolerable is the original sin of this country. Nothing else in this nation will be permanently healed – not income inequality, not corporate greed, not for-profit prisons, not human trafficking, not police murders – until we acknowledge this and say “no more”, on every level, within every system, and out in the streets where our collective roar becomes the healthy boundary that stops intolerance’s immature dodging from touching the vast responsibilities of sweet freedom.