As our country still reels from the terror of witnessing a white nationalist mob force its way into the halls of the U.S. Capitol built by enslaved Americans (whose descendants had to clean up afterward), this treasonous attack has shone a light on the intrinsic nature of our democracy. Not only is it fragile, thereby requiring fierce protection, but at the same time, it must constantly be pushed forward because there are some who will stop at nothing to try and pull it back.
So, as we enter a time when The Capitol Riot, Martin Luther King Day, and Inauguration Day will forever be connected by mere days, I ponder the strange relationship between these three seemingly disparate events. As a Black American, I also think about what each of these events says about the true nature of patriotism.
It’s amazing to me how many white Americans are shocked by the deadly insurrection that occurred in Washington, DC on January 6. If that’s you, then please brush up on some history. Start with the New Orleans Massacre of 1866, the Colfax Massacre of 1873, or the other various riots that took place during the Election of 1876. Sadly, anti-government extremists are nothing new. Nor is the violent refusal to accept the results of a free and fair election, especially when the outcome is influenced by the Black vote.
As we are reminded of these truths, the arrival of MLK Day seems more significant this year than perhaps ever before. This time, the holiday beckons us to use the strength of hope and the light of our collective voice to destroy even the darkest deeds of our enemies.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
We know that Dr. King’s principal strategy was non-violence and he spoke often about the need to act from a place of morality. Yet, he wasn't afraid to openly criticize the silence of good people, inequitable American policies, and corrupt politicians. And he certainly wasn't afraid to demand justice from the powers that be.
“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King stood on the shoulders of other great patriots who came before him — Frederick Douglass and A. Philip Randolph — who were relentless in their demands and in their selfless petitioning of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, respectively.
As such, beginning on Inauguration Day 2021, those of us who voted for Joe Biden — and therefore I assume have the desire to push our democracy toward a more equitable society — we must hold him accountable. And when I think of those who cast a vote for the now twice-impeached, outgoing President and are still refusing to accept defeat, I offer my personal memory of January 20, 1981:
I grew up in the Washington, DC area so Inauguration Day was always a pretty big deal, but mostly because we got the day off from school. We could sleep late, stay home, and do nothing. I was 13 years old when Ronald Reagan was elected President and my father, a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel, insisted that we go downtown to witness his inauguration.
I didn't want to go for two reasons. First, I wanted to sleep late, stay home, and do nothing (OK, that’s three reasons). But I also felt an overwhelming sense of indifference. I may have been too young to care about politics, but I knew my parents were dedicated Democrats and their candidate (President Jimmy Carter) had lost. So, why in the hell were we going to trek downtown to stand outside in the cold to celebrate a man that our family didn't support?
It didn't matter. We were going.
When I look back on that day, on my vivid memory of standing along the parade route on Pennsylvania Avenue as America’s smiling new President and his wife Nancy, dressed in all red, waved to the crowd as they stood through the sunroof of their armored limousine, I now see my father’s intentions.
While Dad was not a fan of Reagan’s, he believed in the political process and he had respect for the Office of the President of the United States. He wanted me to witness democracy at work, and win or lose, he wanted me to understand my responsibility as a citizen and the power of the vote. He’d witnessed a country being forced out of the grip of Jim Crow and, despite America’s blemishes, he saw a promising future for his children.
So, to those who are hanging on to The Big Lie, that the 2020 election was rigged, The Big Truth is that your unpatriotic behavior is not going to result in the America you think you want, and when you most need her, she will turn on you and become a danger to everyone because, as Dr. King said, “nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”