By William Barber and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
While many have expressed genuine astonishment that Donald Trump has emerged as the Republican front-runner in the 2016 Presidential race, those of immersed in the Southern freedom struggle cannot pretend surprise. Reactionary forces in the South have a long history of playing trump cards to exploit fears rooted in our racial past for political gain. That a capitalist as hard-nosed as Trump would learn from the Southern Strategy is to be expected. What’s far more important as we look to 2016 is that we know what it takes to beat his form of extremism.
While we have our doubts that Trump will still be a candidate when Americans go to the polls next fall, that is hardly the point—and it never has been. Trump has already demonstrated that a significant minority of the Republican party’s base is highly responsive to the buzz words that are used to separate poor working people from their counterparts of color—“lazy, ” “illegal, ” “dead-beat” and “un-American.”
This use of buzz words to stir up white America’s fear has a long history. In our home state of North Carolina, after Reconstruction forces had pulled out of the South, the headline “Blacks Shall No Longer Rule the South” was employed by a populist newspaper publisher to regain control for white elites through the Democratic party. Neither the publisher nor his political allies took up arms to drive democratically elected officials out of office and kill scores of African-Americans. They did not have to. The buzz words were enough to stoke old fears and incite a violent backlash among poor whites.
By running as the Dixiecrat candidate for President in 1948, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina did much the same thing for Southern Democrats, playing the trump cards of lost cause religion and Confederate pride to shift the Democratic party toward an agenda of white supremacy. Thurmond did not need to win in order to change the political landscape. George Wallace, a somewhat progressive populist in the 1950s, learned in his 1958 bid for governor that he couldn’t win Alabama without playing the trump card of racial superiority. After loosing to John Patterson, he swore he would “never be out n-ggered again.”
America remembers well Wallace’s 1963 inaugural address, in which he defiantly proclaimed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” He would go down in history as an extremist who lost, even as he was laughed at by many of his contemporaries in 1963. But none of this diminished the power of his words to incite violence in Alabama. Eulogizing the four little girls who were killed by a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church during Wallace’s first year in office, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “[These girls] have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism…. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”
When a white man cited Donald Trump after beating a man on the street in Boston, Trump celebrated his constituency’s “passion” while adding that, of course, he would never endorse violence. But Trump, like Wallace before him, refuses to acknowledge the violence inherent in the divide-and-conquer tactics he employs. No matter how noble its political goal, the trump card of racial fear always results in violence and division.
Anyone surprised by Trump’s national appeal should take time to read George Wallace’s speech at Madison Sqaure Garden when he was running for President as a third party candidate in 1968. Like Trump today, Wallace identified with blue collar Americans while serving their corporate bosses. He noted that his wife had “received more black votes than either of her opponents” while continuing their dynasty of white supremacy in Alabama. How did Wallace draw a crowd of 16, 000 people in New York City in 1968? The same way Donald Trump commands the attention of thousands today—by playing the trump card of old fears to divide-and-conquer working people.
But down in North Carolina, we have seen a better way. Learning from a history of “fusion politics” that brought together poor whites and blacks during Reconstruction, a coalition of black, white and brown, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, began working together in 2006 to build a moral movement. Our common agenda was neither conservative nor liberal, but focused on what is morally just and good for the whole. Building wide and deep, we expanded voting rights in North Carolina and saw a record turn out in 2008. Since that demonstration of our coalition’s power, we have been under attack.
But just as Wallace’s extremism produced a coalition strong enough to march 50, 000 people on the capitol in Montgomery in 1965, we’ve seen our moral, fusion coalition grow stronger in response to 21st-century extremism. National news followed closely Thom Tillis’ 2014 Senate race, noting that it was among the most expensive in US history. Not as widely reported, however, was our Moral March of 100, 000 people on the NC statehouse in February 2014, while Tillis was still in power.
Some pundits assert that Tillis’ win proves the power of the extremist engine that Trump is now driving. If money and power alone drove history, they would be right. But we do not celebrate today the extremism of Thurmond and Wallace (if anything, we say they “changed with the times.”) Neither can we tolerate the cynical power brokers who would re-employ their divide-and-conquers tactics, no matter the cost.
We know this for certain: trump cards are powerful. As the Hebrew Proverb proclaims, “The power of life and death is in the tongue.” But a moral movement knows that, however long it takes, a royal flush representing the full spectrum of humanity will win in the end. If the power of life and death is in the tongue, we must breathe life into the words of love, justice, community, and reconciliation. Amidst the din of trump cards, we must refuse to be silent.
Listen to Rev. Barber addressing the families of Walter Scott and the nine church members killed at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC this past weekend.