When I was a teenager, I wanted to be like Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Forrest, of course, was a slaveowner who went on to become a noted Confederate general. His troops massacred black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow, and he went on to be one of the founding members of the KKK, but it wasn’t these facts that attracted me, per se. It was the knowledge that elsewhere he was indubitably an incredible soldier, the only man to start the Civil War as a private and end it as a general. You can certainly view him through the lens of history as a glaring example of white privilege; for me he seemed like a victory for meritocracy. (At Brice’s Crossroads, for instance, he pulled off one of the most stunning tactical victories in warfare, soundly defeating 8,100 Union troops with a force of only 3,500 Confederates.) In Ken Burns’ Civil War series, Shelby Foote said the war’s only two geniuses were Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forrest. One way or another, I wanted to be a genius.
While still in high school, I read Jack Hurst’s excellent biography of Forrest; I remember noticing that his birthday was July 13th. I was so enamored with the Forrest mythos that I was mildly disappointed that it wasn’t my birthday; it was a day that meant nothing to me. I noticed, too, that at the end of his days, after a lifetime of drinking and cussing and fighting, Forrest had converted to Christianity, and genuinely repented of his myriad sins.
After high school, I went to the military academy, but it soon became apparent that I was not a natural soldier; when I left the service, my enthusiasm for military matters waned, and I spent a good decade-plus without thinking much about Forrest. Eventually, I married a beautiful, smart, spunky woman—a woman who happens to be African-American. When she gave birth to our son, I remember looking at the date—July 13th. I pulled up Wikipedia to see if it held any special historical significance; when I realized it was Forrest’s birthday, I had to laugh at the irony. Some months later, in the course of moving some books, I came across the Hurst biography again. And in this racially-charged time of suspicion and mistrust, I’ve been thinking about Forrest, and what he means for us.
While his military prowess once impressed me, now I respect the fact that he had the courage to change, and to repent of his ways. Speaking to an audience of African-American Southerners in 1875, he said: “Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I'll come to your relief,” and “When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together.”
After this speech, Nathan Bedford Forrest accepted a bouquet from an African-American woman, a former slave, who gave it in appreciation of his efforts towards harmony. For this, he was condemned by his peers, including at least one Confederate officers’ association, and roundly lambasted in Southern newspapers. He’d helped start an evil organization that lived on after his death, but in this day of political name-calling, when so many of us think we can judge someone’s heart based on the company they’ve kept, it bears noting that a man who played a key early role in the most virulent racist organization in American history ended his life preaching love, tolerance, and racial reconciliation.
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I never much admired George Wallace. He started his political career as a relatively moderate populist, endorsed by the NAACP in a failed 1958 gubernatorial bid; after his loss, he became an ardent segregationalist. When asked about the switch, he said, "I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor." In the 1962 general election (at a time, of course, when many Alabama counties used poll taxes, racially disparate voter tests, or even outright violence to prevent African Americans from even registering to cast their ballots), he went on to win 96% of the vote.
At Wallace’s inauguration, in a speech written by Ku Klux Klan member Asa Earl Carter, he said: “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” (It’s worth noting the Orwellian logic in this sentence, the perversion of reality—at a time when white Southerners were violently disenfranchising their black peers, and often killing their leaders, he viewed the federal government’s efforts towards racial justice as “tyranny.”) Wallace later went to Washington and met with President Johnson in March of 1965, in the wake of the “Bloody Sunday” Selma protests which led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As a cadet at West Point, I wrote a paper about this process; I didn’t know much about it, and I wanted to learn. I read about how Wallace received the “Johnson treatment” during the course of their conversation. The president was willing to use crude language and talk as one Southerner to another. (“Now, George, why don’t you let those niggers vote?”) He also tried to puff up Wallace’s ego. (When Wallace claimed that it was the county registrars that were responsible for black disenfranchisement, Johnson said: “George, don’t you shit me as to who runs Alabama.”) And he appealed to Wallace’s larger sense of self, and every politician’s desire for a lasting and positive legacy. “George, you and I shouldn’t be thinking about 1965; we should be thinking about 1985,” Johnson said. “Now, you got a lot of poor people down there in Alabama…a lot of people who need jobs, a lot of people who need a future. You could do a lot for them. Now, in 1985, George, what do you want left behind? Do you want a great big marble monument that says ‘George Wallace: He Built’? Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine lying there along that harsh caliche soil that says ‘George Wallace: He Hated’?”
In the end, LBJ got the law he wanted, a law which opened up access to the polls for millions who had had no voice, the true victims of the true tyranny. But he got it with no help from Wallace, for his appeals to Wallace’s ego did not work. The Alabama governor left their meeting having been moved, but not converted. (“Hell, if I’d stayed in there much longer, he’d have had me coming out for civil rights,” he would later say.) He remained committed to his views, for a time; in 1968, he of course ran as a 3rd party candidate, the last to receive actual Electoral College votes. He was running even stronger in the 1972 primaries, picking up votes in northern states from voters who were angry at forced integration through school bussing—until a would-be assassin (apparently motivated by nothing more than a desire to be noteworthy) shot and paralyzed him.
During Wallace’s recuperation, he was visited in the hospital by many politicians—including Shirley Chisolm, a black congresswoman from Brooklyn who was mounting her own campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The Johnson conversation seven years earlier had been, perhaps, a meeting of two massive egos; it changed neither person. But this was something else entirely—a kind act to a dangerous demagogue, a brave act by a woman who could have just as easily refused to act. For Shirley Chisolm knew she’d be criticized for the visit. As she later recalled, Wallace asked her: “What are your people going to say?” To which she responded: “I know what they’re going to say. But I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone.” After she said this, George Wallace “cried and cried.”
Johnson was of course no longer alive in 1985, but Wallace was. Somewhere after Shirley Chisolm’s hospital visit, he’d become a voice of tolerance and compassion. For his last term in office, he’d selected a racially mixed cabinet, and appointed unprecedented numbers of African-Americans to statewide positions. While certainly not a model governor—both his earlier and later terms were marked by political cronyism—he met with civil rights leaders, including Representative John Lewis, who had been viciously beaten at Selma, and had suffered a fractured skull. Wallace repented of his ways, publicly admitted his wrongs, and asked forgiveness from those he had helped oppress.
Wallace, too, was willing to forgive the man who had grievously wounded him; in 1995, he wrote to Arthur Bremer. Although he acknowledged the 20-plus years of pain he’d endured, he also said, “I am a born-again Christian” and “I love you.”
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The Reverend Martin Luther King, a man who experienced much hate, famously said: “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Many of us like to think the answer to our social ills isn’t love, but knowledge. It’s a comforting way to dismiss racism and intolerance, to view their adherents as backwards, uneducated, stupid, and therefore worthy of contempt. But this is a dangerous assumption.
The dirty secret about racism and intolerance and hatred is that it isn’t always founded on ignorance. If mere knowledge were enough to make people get along, no marriages would end in divorce. And to my friends who act as if moving overseas and meeting other people of different backgrounds were enough to make people treat each other well, I’m fond of pointing out instances from the rise of modern Islamic terrorism where this was explicitly not the case. (Sayyid Qutb, a key early member of the Muslim Brotherhood and one of the ideological forefathers of violent Islamism, lived in the United States and was horrified by much of what he saw, not only by the treatment of different races, but also by the free association of men and women in public; in the language of modern liberals, he was anti-racist but horribly sexist. Mohamed Atta, who of course piloted American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, lived in Germany for years. And Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the attacks, graduated from university in North Carolina.)
So it is not knowledge that will save us, because knowledge, driven by the wrong spirit, will exacerbate our differences. We filter our knowledge; it only reaches us once it’s been poured through our own experiences and identities—which are subjective, not objective, for each and every one of us. Knowledge can lead us to pick and choose which facts are most important, and to do so in a way that feeds our ravenous egos, rather than nourishing our quiet hunger for peace.
Leo Tolstoy, in his seminal pacifist work The Kingdom of God is Within You, identified three possible concepts of how to make sense of the world. There is, he says, the personal (or animal) concept, in which people primarily work to gratify themselves. Most societies rightly recognize that this is a recipe for strife and frustration; if everyone’s looking to sate themselves, we will inevitably wind up in conflict with one another, for our egos are insatiable. But it is Tolstoy’s second concept which is perhaps most intriguing; this is what he calls “the social, or the pagan.” In this, “man’s life is not contained in his personality alone, but in the aggregate and sequence of personalities—in the tribe, the family, the race, the state; the aim of life consists in the gratification of the will of this aggregate of personalities.” Such a person, Tolstoy says, “sacrifices his personal good” for the sake of the group. “The prime mover of his life is glory. His religion consists in the glorification of the heads of unions—of eponyms, ancestors, kings, and in the worship of gods, the exclusive protectors of his family, his race, his nation, his state.”
To me, this concept is the root of our present troubles; when we live this way, there is a tendency to conflate morality with what is good or bad for whatever identity we cherish most—our own nation, race, occupation, gender or religion. And there’s a tendency to cherry-pick facts, too, to play up items that feed our egos and look good for our group identity, while discounting those that don’t. Those whites who are truly racist can then decry the sad state of America’s inner cities, blaming blacks en masse for criminality and drug abuse and unemployment and the collapse of communities—all while ignoring the ongoing decline of so many of our small towns and rural communities from the ravages of heroin abuse and the decline in well-paying blue-collar jobs. Radical Islamists can harp on the collateral damage casualties caused by drone strikes, or the suffering of Palestinian refugees, while rationalizing and excusing and minimizing the thousands of people murdered on 9/11, or the Israelis killed by terrorist bombs. When we live by this concept, agitators on the fringes of the “Black Lives Matter” movement can tell themselves that other lives do not matter, and attack police; when we live by this concept, police can blithely dismiss the BLM protestors by saying “Blue Lives Matter,” as if choosing to put on a police uniform for part of the day (and getting a salary and a pension for it) was equivalent to wearing a skin not of your choosing for your entire life. When we live by this concept, Muslims who live in Western opulence can choose to become terrorists, and rationalize that choice because other Muslims that they’ve never met have suffered defeat and death and oppression in unjust wars. When we live by this concept, non-Catholic women can tell Catholic women that they should avoid their own preferences and vote for a woman who didn’t always seem to like Catholics. When we live by this concept, Catholics can call employer-provided birth control—birth control that nobody has to take—“persecution,” and then turn around and vote for a man who openly talked about restricting the freedom of movement of 1.6 billion Muslims.
But Tolstoy’s third life concept is rooted not in the individual identity, nor in the group identity. People who live by this concept are motivated by love, a love that knows no boundaries or borders, no distinctions of race or class or religion. This is, perhaps, a Christian love—but it’s an expansive love, completely unlike the so-called Christianity of, say, the KKK, or the Westboro Baptist “Church”; it’s a love that calls us to treat people well even when they don’t look or act like us, or even when they haven’t treated us well. It’s a love that follows Jesus’ admonition that “Whatsoever you have done to the least of my bretheren, you have done unto me.”
This kind of love is a true, active love. It’s not a blind love, but rather a love that sees the best in those around us, and sees the potential for better things, still, and calls forth those better things, not only in them, but in us. It’s this love (I would argue) that led Nathan Bedford Forrest to accept a bouquet of flowers from a black audience, and earn the condemnation of his fellow former Confederates; it’s this love that led Shirley Chisolm to George Wallace’s hospital room; it’s the love that allowed John Lewis to meet with the governor whose minions had fractured Lewis’ skull; it’s the love that let George Wallace reach out to the man who’d shot him five times.
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For those of us who voted against Donald Trump, there are reasons to be profoundly concerned by his election, inauguration, and early presidency. His legacy is, to say the least, racially charged. He was sued for refusing to rent apartments to African Americans, and ordered to change his practices—and he resisted the settlement. After the arrest of five black and Hispanic youths in connection with the brutal rape of a jogger in Central Park in 1989, he purchased a heated full-page ad decrying the crime and calling for the reintroduction of the death penalty—never mind the fact that the boys were innocent, and ended up being exonerated. When the city of New York paid settlement money to the now-grown exonerees, who’d spent a combined total of forty years in jail for a crime they didn’t commit, he blasted the deal. Trump has openly advocated policies that violate the First Amendment of the constitution, and done so in a way that seems designed to exacerbate racial tensions. There are legitimate concerns that Trump won the 2016 election, in part, because of voter ID laws that are, according to liberal activists, a resumption of the poll tax by other means—a partial reversal of the gains for which Martin Luther King and John Lewis and many others marched at Selma. Trump’s picked a chief strategist who’s been all too willing to seek support from belligerent white nationalists. And his selection of Ben Carson for the Secretary of Housing and Urban Affairs certainly gives off an odor of both tokenism and racism; rather than giving a neurosurgeon a post related to his career (such as, say, leadership of the Department of Health and Human Services), it certainly seems like Trump’s giving a black man a post in charge of something he associates with blackness—urban affairs.
And yet, the key question isn’t “Is Donald Trump a racist?” It is “Can we respond to Donald Trump with love?” Only God knows Trump’s heart, or his motivations. (Besides, if my 39 years have taught me anything, it is that nobody responds well when you accuse them of bad motives. Even if they are, in fact, motivated by such negative emotions, they will never admit to it; they will come up with some other nobler-sounding reason for their actions, and they will probably believe it.) But we can certainly learn a lot from The Donald by looking at his actions, and if we temper that knowledge with a loving spirit, we might indeed learn something worthwhile.
Ben Franklin once said “Love your Enemies, for they tell you your Faults.” And this may be part of the key to loving him—realizing that he is, in a way, showing us our truest selves. His career in real estate and reality TV, and his relentless Twitter usage, suggest that he is, perhaps, the quintessential Ugly American, the apotheosis of all we dislike about our country and ourselves. For who among us, in these days of relentless social media self-promotion and façade-building, has not engaged in the same behavior as Donald Trump, albeit on a smaller scale? Who among us does not get distracted from necessary work to get caught up in useless spats on social media? Who among us hasn’t been lured away from the real and thankless chores in front of us by the need to puff up our online egos, by these endless vain attempts to look bigger and more important and more successful than we really are? Trump is, perhaps, a funhouse mirror that distorts and exaggerates our worst traits as a country—our hunger for fame and money and power and success and, most crucially, attention.
There are those, of course, who refuse to see any part of themselves in Donald Trump, who choose to focus on the differences instead of the similarities—and that’s certainly their right. Many of these people have pointed out Donald Trump’s apparent emulation of Richard Nixon, a man who appealed to white fears of black crime, a man who was often described as an epic hater. Trump has certainly harped on similar themes; he even leaned on Roger Ailes, former head of Fox News and one-time media consultant to Nixon, for debate preparation help. It’s certainly worth remembering that Nixon’s hatred and paranoia led to resignation and disgrace, and a country temporarily united in dislike of him. And yet in the interests of love and positivity, we might do better to remember the nobler and more benevolent side of Nixon, the side that acted, as Trump might say, “bigly.” This was, after all, the man who presided over the first nuclear arms limitation talks with the Soviets; this was the man who opened diplomatic relations with China, an act that helped that country move away from the extremism and genocide of the Mao years. One hopes Trump, in between angry tweets about SNL cast members and recalcitrant judges, remembers that his occasionally-petty predecessor was willing to show true and lasting leadership in ways that really did make the world a better place.
But we might do better still to remember Nixon’s surprisingly warm and wise words upon his departure from the White House: “Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” If we respond to Trump’s actions with hatred, we will be ruining ourselves, while leaving him intact, and further set in his ways. For hatred tends to harden people’s hearts, rather than softening them, and a hardened heart will never change. But change is possible. And if it was possible for Forrest and Wallace, surely it’s possible for Trump, and for ourselves.