The dangers of revolutionary right-wing rhetoric
When Glenn Beck and others talk about an antigovernment revolution, we should recall the 1898 Wilmington race riot.
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This spring, covering an antitax "tea party" protest in Boston, Fox News Business anchor Cody Willard raged, "Guys, when are we going to wake up and start fighting the fascism that seems to be permeating this country?"Skip to next paragraph
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The Rev. William J. Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, recalls similar sentiment on Southern billboards during the civil-rights era, "painting Martin Luther King as a communist, a socialist, and anti-American."
As in 1898, a prominent black American's patriotism and legitimacy are questioned. Today, the radical, reactionary right asks whether Obama is really an American citizen. Mr. Barber warns of what he calls "a rebirth of dangerous rhetoric," reminding us that "all forms of violence are preceded by violent language."
Today, the hate barometer is climbing dangerously upward. In August, Steven Anderson of the Faithful Word Baptist church of Tempe, Ariz., told his congregants he prays for Obama's death. So, too, does the Rev. Wiley Drake in California.
The lesson is obvious: Healthy language produces healthy communities. Unhealthy language results in unhealthy communities. "The 1898 Wilmington violence laid the foundation for a one-party state, driving a wedge between peoples for political ends," says David Cecelski, a North Carolina historian. "It strikes me as immoral."
Wilmington still struggles with the legacy of these events more than a century later. Generations of black children were condemned to third-rate educations. Today, under the banner of "neighborhood schools," the city, like other municipalities nationwide, faces subtle efforts to resegregate classrooms. Perhaps the most tragic facet of white-hot rhetoric then and now is that democracy was betrayed; and trust, the linchpin of democracy, was destroyed.
A year ago, Wilmington community leaders such as District Attorney Ben David helped launch a reconciliation campaign to restore interracial trust and move beyond blame and defensiveness toward healing. It is a slow process.
Nationally, Americans need to have a similar conversation to avoid repeating the country's painful racial history. Today's fire-eaters and right-wing bloggers might consider the long-term human and social damage inflicted on Wilmington by an earlier generation of alienated politicians. Then they should tamp down their toxic brew of incitement, hateful language, and subtly disguised racism.
Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly print edition.