Black Lives Matter protest
Credit: Ted Eytan/Wikimedia Commons

It is truly bizarre that, at a moment when the Trump administration is sending in federal stormtroopers to threaten peaceful protesters in Portland, Oregon, conservatives are claiming that it is liberals who threaten the foundation of our democratic republic. It all started with Trump’s speech at Mt. Rushmore on July 4th.

Seventeen seventy-six represented the culmination of thousands of years of western civilization and the triumph not only of spirit, but of wisdom, philosophy, and reason.

And yet, as we meet here tonight, there is a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for, struggled, they bled to secure.

Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children…

This attack on our liberty, our magnificent liberty, must be stopped, and it will be stopped very quickly.  We will expose this dangerous movement, protect our nation’s children, end this radical assault, and preserve our beloved American way of life…

Make no mistake: this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.

That was followed up by a speech from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the National Constitution Center to unveil the first report from his “Commission on Unalienable Rights.” The secretary had established the commission a year ago in order to ground our foreign policy in this country’s founding ideals. The first thing to note is that Pompeo thinks that it is necessary to prioritize which unalienable rights are most important.

…the report emphasizes foremost among these rights are property rights and religious liberty. No one can enjoy the pursuit of happiness if you cannot own the fruits of your own labor, and no society – no society can retain its legitimacy or a virtuous character without religious freedom.

Of course, what a Christian nationalist like Pompeo means when he talks about “religious liberty” is the freedom of white evangelical Christians to do what they please and all other religions be damned. That one has a lot of human rights advocates pointing out that it is the rights of women and LGBTQ persons to be treated as equal citizens under the law that are getting thrown under the bus.

Pompeo mentioned Trump’s speech at Mt. Rushmore when he launched into his own attack on those who are protesting against police brutality.

President Trump spoke about this at Mount Rushmore on the Fourth of July. And our rights tradition is under assault.

The New York Times’s 1619 Project – so named for the year that the first slaves were transported to America – wants you to believe that our country was founded for human bondage.

They want you to believe that America’s institutions continue to reflect the country’s acceptance of slavery at our founding.

They want you to believe that Marxist ideology that America is only the oppressors and the oppressed. The Chinese Communist Party must be gleeful when they see the New York Times spout this ideology.

Some people have taken these false doctrines to heart. The rioters pulling down statues thus see nothing wrong with desecrating monuments to those who fought for our unalienable rights – from our founding to the present day.

This is a dark vision of America’s birth. I reject it. It’s a disturbed reading of history. It is a slander on our great people. Nothing could be further from the truth of our founding and the rights about which this report speaks.

The commission reminds us – it’s got a quote from Frederick Douglas, himself a freed slave, who saw the Constitution as a “glorious, liberty document.” That it is.

That quote from Frederick Douglass is a favorite among conservatives. What they don’t tell you is that it comes from his speech titled, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’ given in 1852—nine years before the Civil War. Speaking to a white audience, Douglass refers to “your National Independence, and of your political freedom” (emphasis mine), making it clear that it doesn’t apply to those who were enslaved. You can almost see the tongue-in-cheek way that he talks about what led up to the Declaration of Independence from British rule.

Feeling themselves harshly and unjustly treated by the home government, your fathers, like men of honesty, and men of spirit, earnestly sought redress. They petitioned and remonstrated; they did so in a decorous, respectful, and loyal manner. Their conduct was wholly unexceptionable. This, however, did not answer the purpose. They saw themselves treated with sovereign indifference, coldness and scorn. Yet they persevered. They were not the men to look back…

Oppression makes a wise man mad. Your fathers were wise men, and if they did not go mad, they became restive under this treatment. They felt themselves the victims of grievous wrongs, wholly incurable in their colonial capacity. With brave men there is always a remedy for oppression. Just here, the idea of a total separation of the colonies from the crown was born! It was a startling idea, much more so, than we, at this distance of time, regard it. The timid and the prudent (as has been intimated) of that day, were, of course, shocked and alarmed by it.

It seems pretty clear that Pompeo has never read Douglass’s whole speech. So it might surprise him to learn that the man he quoted referred to our founding fathers as oppressed, but wise men who chaffed under their treatment by the home government. The Declaration of Independence was actually a protest document.

But by the end of his speech, Douglass made it clear that these founding ideals were not extended to people like him.

I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mineYou may rejoice, I must mourn.

That is the part of Douglass’s speech that Pompeo doesn’t want you to hear—much less read himself. There are people who are still mourning the fact that American hasn’t lived up to its ideals. They are taking to the streets to protest and this administration is doing everything in their power to vilify, threaten, and stop them.

It is worth noting that it was this country’s first African American president who drew our attention to the words contained in the preamble to the Constitution during his 2008 speech about race in America (emphasis mine).

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Here’s what Obama said.

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution — a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty and justice and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part — through protests and struggles, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience, and always at great risk — to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

With the passing of John Lewis over the weekend, this is also a time to remember the words Obama spoke to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march he led across the bridge in Selma, Alabama.

As we commemorate their achievement, we are well-served to remember that at the time of the marches, many in power condemned rather than praised them.  Back then, they were called Communists, or half-breeds, or outside agitators, sexual and moral degenerates, and worse –- they were called everything but the name their parents gave them.  Their faith was questioned.  Their lives were threatened.  Their patriotism challenged.

And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place? What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people –- unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many, coming together to shape their country’s course?

What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?

That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience.  That’s why it’s not a museum or a static monument to behold from a distance.  It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents:  “We the People… in order to form a more perfect union.”  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

It is people like Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo who are in the process of threatening the ideals on which this country was founded. They are the ones who are calling protesters “everything but the name their parents gave them” and serving up the modern-day equivalent of the billy clubs used against people like John Lewis on “Bloody Sunday.”

The great divide in this country has always been the one between those in power who will do anything to maintain the status quo and those who revere our founding ideals enough to join the struggle to perfect our union. It’s once again time to choose a side.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.