Photo for WILDER turn, Aug. 27

In January 1970, two senior members of the state Senate, Dr. J.D. Hagood of Halifax County, left, and M.M. Long of Wise County, greeted Richmond’s L. Douglas Wilder, the chamber’s newest member. Wilder was the first African-American in the Senate since Reconstruction.

Despite many requests, I have made no public comment about the events in Charlottesville, until now. I chose this route because I was not interested in television arguments, political correctness, or faux debates. After so many deaths — which include those of Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen, Trooper Berke Bates, both of the Virginia State Police, and Heather Heyer — it is time to concentrate solely on answers and action.

Once we have come to a consensus that it is not about statues alone — and that is the sole, true answer — only then can we begin the solutions phase with a national conversation that can knit this country together. Of the many perspectives to be included in that discourse, the voices of hate and hands of violence that marred Charlottesville should not be considered equal partners, because they have nothing constructive to add.

The tragedy we saw in Emancipation Park and all around downtown Charlottesville is a stark reminder that much needs to be done in our country to heal racial divides, which have existed since 20 captive Africans were forcibly transported to Virginia’s soil nearly 400 years ago (in 1619) and traded like inanimate possessions (slavery having not been common until some 50 years later and not codified until 1705).

After the events of August 12, 2017, regrettably, our leaders did little to salve a national wound or lead to any resolution of an issue that has rendered itself a miasma on the American scene. It would not be hard to argue the voice from the White House helped that rankness grow ominously.

We have to come to the inescapable conclusion that the stain of slavery in America, and its foreseeable consequences, need to be discussed without anger and absent fear. Our educational system needs to be an integral part of that conversation. Schools across America have to be open for instruction about difficult facts — not near-fictional, gauzy representations of American history that do not advance society.

Let us realize certain points are not the subject of debate:

  • Slavery in any form is a dehumanizing institution — period.
  • There is nothing moral about defending slavery any place in the world.
  • The South began the Civil War in defense of its reliance on the enslavement of those persons brought here from Africa.

This conversation, though, cannot rely solely on schools or government. The most basic American institution, the family, also must play a vital role. In the absence of full, open, and frank discussion — beginning with our families and our schools — we will continue this centuries-old moral divide, which might lead to more unrest.

***

I recently authored the only book I have written, “Son of Virginia.” Its underlying point is that I am a by-product of Virginia — everything that is Virginia, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Anything less would have been incomplete.

As a boy, I attended the segregated George Mason Elementary School in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood. That school had outdoor toilets, no cafeteria, no auditorium, no new books — but the best teachers in the world, even though they were not paid comparably to their counterparts in other schools.

Those teachers, our families, and our communities raised us to feel like complete human beings, notwithstanding the shortcomings of the “emptiness” of the pledge we were obliged to recite EVERY day: “One nation under God, with liberty and justice for ALL.”

In today’s climate, there are those who sensationalize and “pimp ride” race, while many times furthering the divide of our nation. The teachers, families, and communities I herein reference no longer unite to demand what is right, and to criticize what is wrong. And, they do not hold those whom they elect to represent them to the degree of responsibility requisite to those ends.

***

Eighty years ago, it was generally believed that persons of color should have no authority — elected, appointed, or derived — to correct the evils of the past. Particularly in Virginia, the officials who made all decisions were not of those they governed and purported to represent.

During the last part of the 20th century, that began to change. Laws that restricted citizens from holding public office because of race have been challenged and changed.

Those who were previously unrepresented were extended the vote and a louder voice that was supposed to equal an ultimate uplift — real participation that could lead to a broader solidification of the American Dream.

Recently an advertisement appeared requesting volunteers to help paint George Mason Elementary School, so that it might be opened in September.

It might be difficult in some quarters to imagine how that made parents and students feel about their status in the community — about their grasp of the American Dream. This is going on more than 150 years after Emancipation, and more than 50 years after the country got serious about protecting the civil rights to vote and hold office. Frankly, paint is surely not the only thing the school needs to be brought to basic American standards.

Who, today, represents the parents and students of a school that needs volunteers for something as minimal as painting? There are other areas of the city where the same and similar circumstances exist.

***

Will the removal of statues change any of this, as welcome as some might find it? Will it provide our young people a more recognizable version of the American Dream?

I was criticized by “leaders” of both races in 1970, one month after I was sworn in as a state senator, for objecting to “Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny” as the state song. But, they stopped singing the song at official events and finally rendered it to the “emeritus” dust bin.

Shortly thereafter, I was shocked to see youngsters out in the streets when they should be in school. I then became made aware that Virginia chose to do away with the compulsory attendance laws during massive resistance and fought to have them reinstated.

I was told I was “crazy” when I pushed, for eight years, to make Virginia the first legislative body in the U.S. to honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

I was continually questioned and rebuked over the Arthur Ashe monument. There were critics on all sides who fought my pushing for Ashe to be honored with a statue on Monument Avenue, where it stands today.

It is clear there has been progress and that more still needs to be done. As they say, “the only thing constant is change and the only thing lasting is time.”

***

In all of these cited instances, sometimes critics became supporters; wholesome dialogue turned constructive. Virginians can and must have an open dialogue, the foundation of which begins with educating ourselves about our true history.

Virginians have shown the rest of the country that they are not living in the past, that they are willing to lead, and that they are always ahead of the politicians.

My election as governor of the commonwealth spoke to this point, specifically since in Virginia at the time, only about 15 percent of registered voters were African-American, one of the lowest in the Southern states. We have endeavored to move forward, but we have never really confronted our past and dealt with it honestly and openly. It is critical that we do so now.

Also, we must agree that the questions and dialogue that will bring us together cannot be answered to the satisfaction of those who brag about the American Experiment, while destroying American ideals at the same time.

The question that faces Virginia faces our entire nation ... Whither goest thou, America?

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L. Douglas Wilder served as 66th governor of Virginia and is now distinguished professor at the VCU L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. He also served as mayor of Richmond.

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