Two visions of America’s past — and future
As Trump revisits ‘American carnage’ at CPAC, Biden renews call to strengthen voting rights in Selma
“I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.” And just to make sure everyone in the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference and those watching at home got the message, former president and current presidential candidate Donald Trump repeated that last line: "I am your retribution.”
Trump revisited his “American carnage” 2017 inauguration speech to again paint a picture of an angry and divided America — with a promise to lead a charge into battle if elected.
On the same weekend, President Joe Biden traveled to Selma, Ala., to commemorate the 58th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, that day on March 7, 1965, when marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge heading to the capital city of Montgomery for voting rights and for justice in the name of civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson — who was killed by an Alabama state trooper — were met with violence from law enforcement as the world watched.
The result of the marchers’ resolve and sacrifice was the Voting Rights Act, signed by Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965.
“No matter how hard some people try, we can’t just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know,” Biden said Sunday. “We should learn everything — the good, the bad, the truth — of who we are as a nation.”
And, after renewing his call to strengthen those same voting rights citizens had demanded that day in 1965, Biden concluded: “My fellow Americans, on this Sunday of our time, we know where we’ve been and we know, more importantly, where we have to go: forward together.”
At CPAC at National Harbor, Md., last week, the speaker’s list included Jair Bolsonaro, the former president of Brazil, whose followers attacked his country’s capital city after his loss; and Kari Lake, still in election denial about her own November defeat in Arizona’s gubernatorial race. Notice the theme?
Attendees could choose between sessions on “Finish the Wall, Build the Dome” or “No Chinese Balloon Above Tennessee,” but there was no room for a lesson on the American history made on that Selma bridge 58 years ago.
In Selma, where devastating tornado damage provided a backdrop for a community that has never given up in the face of crises, one of those marking the day with another pilgrimage to the bridge was 67-year-old Sheyann Webb-Christburg, who, as a little girl, was a civil rights activist and one of those tear-gassed and chased by troops on March 7, 1965.
After she attended her first church meeting and heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others speak about the fight for freedom, she disobeyed worried and wary parents and kept returning. She was a child who asked questions, and she knew right from wrong, which led her to the bridge that day.
Traumatized by her experience, by seeing how low her country would go to maintain its system of white supremacy, she ran home and wrote about her own funeral arrangements. But she has never wavered.
“In many ways, I have felt hopeless,” Webb-Christburg told Politico. “But there have been other reasons where hope still prevails with me. And it still does.”
It was a message of light born out of the darkness no child should experience. But would her historic and optimistic truth, which she has shared with young people, be axed from history lessons for children the age she was back then?
Would it be judged “woke” by the likes of the Saturday CPAC crowd that cheered Trump’s dark vision?
The story of March 7, 1965, and what followed had good guys and bad guys. Does the lack of support for recognizing those of all races working for equal rights under the law, then and now, put you on the side of the troopers bashing men, women and children with batons and the legislators who voted “no” on voting rights?
It sure seems that way, since picking sides is not that hard.
Putting politics aside
Though it’s hard to believe, there was a time when Democrats and Republicans occasionally put politics aside, recognizing that, despite differences, some things were above partisanship, some events were too important a part of American history and must be remembered and honored if our country’s values were to mean anything at all.
In fact, in 2015, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Selma march, then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy went. The California Republican may have been pushed, after the lack of GOP leadership representation prompted criticism. But he went, and he wasn’t the only Republican in the delegation to pay his respects.
On that day in 2015, then-President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama walked across the bridge with former GOP President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush. Also in attendance was Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis, who died in 2020.
Who could forget the image of the young Lewis, wearing a trench coat and toting a backpack, marching bravely in the front of the line in 1965, and, despite brutal beatings by troopers that cracked his skull, reached out to help the women and others being trampled and attacked during peaceful protest.
While president, Bush had in 2006 signed the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act with broad Republican support. But since Supreme Court justices he appointed struck down key provisions of that landmark bill in the 2013 Shelby decision, laws to bolster voting rights — including one bearing Lewis’ name — have failed to make it through Congress.
I have to wonder if McCarthy, now the speaker of the House who kowtows to Trump and fringe members of his party, would be proud to admit he was ever in Selma that day in 2015. That McCarthy handed over Jan. 6, 2021, tapes of the Capitol riot, conducted by a MAGA mob, to a Fox News host he knew would excuse rioters who vandalized a tribute to Lewis, says everything about them — and him.
We know where Alabama GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville, a former college football head coach, was last week — at CPAC, serving up his usual word salad about the “far left” and “crazies” and making false claims about schools not teaching reading, writing and arithmetic.
Tuberville might not be able to identify the three branches of government or why the Allies fought in World War II, but he sure knows enough to skip an important event in the state he represents so he can shout “woke” at folks who have trouble defining it.
This past weekend, the choice for our leaders — and Americans — could not have been clearer.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.