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“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner

It is often said that no two people see an event in the same way. With the ever increasing ability of humans to receive information and replay it almost instantly, the age old question of “what really happened?” should be easier to study and interpret. But that “ain’t necessarily so,” as the old Gershwin song goes. 

A series of recent opinion letters to the Rappahannock News have expressed feelings about racial discrimination, historical monuments, and the question of how we should recognize and demystify and demythologize our nation’s very real history. The questions are as old as time, but the answers are elusive. When we see statues of Christopher Columbus being destroyed by angry and violent mobs, it gets our attention, which was surely the point of those actions, if indeed there was “a point.” 

Since I have been contributing opinions to this newspaper for over twenty years, I suspect that many readers know of my involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, but apparently some do not. The demographics of our county appear to be shifting a bit toward more Northern “come heres.” (Don’t wince, I’m also a “come here” and I am eternally grateful for that happenstance).

But I need to give you the briefest of autobiographies because there are some here who think I really did have a garage in a place where all they did was wreck cars.

I spent the first 19 years of my life in a railroad shack on the “colored” side of the tracks.

Until I was ten, we had no indoor plumbing or electricity. Portsmouth, Virginia, was as segregated as ol’ Jim Crow wanted it to be. It was “white only” in schools, public accommodations, and in churches. As I grew into my teens, I started to question that system, and to look for a way to change things. I ended up in Chapel Hill as the 1960’s were beginning to percolate up, and when JFK was murdered, I joined in the marches, the sit-ins, and the demonstrations. I battled the Klan on a few occasions, got sucker-punched, kicked, shot at on two occasions, and I spent a lot of time in the crowded jails of the Tar Heel State. 

But . . . , we also saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with the Public Accommodations Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Equal Employment Act. 

During the summers in the 1960’s, I worked on railroads throughout the South, and fell in love with the “vibe” in Atlanta, Dr. King’s hometown and the center of the Civil Rights Movement. And that is where I hung my hat for the next quarter century or so. It was in Atlanta where the “Dukes of Hazzard” got started, and from there I was elected to Congress, along with the late John Lewis, with whom I became very close. I also forged a friendship with Andrew Young, who was Dr. King’s closest advisor, and we “still keep up.”

The challenge that has been foremost in my mind for six decades now is part of the dream that Dr. King described so eloquently when he spoke, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” 

I have lived long enough to see that Dream come true. I have been at that Southern table with brothers and sisters of all races, sharing in the best of our human existence with respect and affection. And I am as certain as I could be about anything that Dr. King put no asterisks on dining at the table of brotherhood. He understood that we must accept our separate pasts, and join together for our shared future. Nothing is gained in attacking one another’s ancestors, who were, as we say, “of their time.”

But now we have the rising demand from the “woke” leftists to destroy and eradicate the institutional memory of the Confederacy; those monuments, those statues, those solemn remembrances of those valiant lads. I have read the nasty rhetoric that vilifies those honest, heartfelt memories of the Southern effort. The “cultural cleansing” of this neo-Marxist crowd has spread like an infection across our academia, our media, and our politics. It has even become fashionable to the hoity-toity here in Rappahannock.

But I swear to you that Dr. King would be appalled by this mob violence in the name of racial progress and by the destruction of honored statuary. He was about building bridges to a better future, not tearing down heartfelt memorials to our imperfect past. 

His leadership is yet to be improved upon.

— The writer lives in Harris Hollow.

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