Editor’s Note: Johnita P. Due is vice president and assistant general counsel for CNN. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Johnita Due: Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe was mistaken to refer to Thomas Jefferson in such adoring terms
Jefferson, like many Founding Fathers, played a role in seeding white supremacy in this country, writes Due
“I have a message to all the white supremacists and the Nazis who came into Charlottesville today. Our message is plain and simple: Go home,” said Governor Terry McAuliffe. “You are not wanted in this great Commonwealth. … You pretend that you are patriots, but you are anything but a patriot.”
McAuliffe was saying many of the things we needed to hear, and the black man standing behind him in the white “Menace II Supremacy” shirt was nodding emphatically.
“You want to talk about patriots, talk about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington who brought our country together,” he added. The man in the t-shirt, who I later learned was Charlottesville Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy, stopped nodding, maybe coincidentally, but I felt punched in the stomach.
At a time when it is important to condemn white nationalists and supremacists unequivocally, invoking Thomas Jefferson is a mistake.
White supremacy is based on the concept that blacks and other people of color are not equal to whites – many believe they are not even worth the three-fifths that was embodied in the original Constitution for tax and representation purposes. Such notions of inferiority are what Jefferson and other slave owners used to justify holding blacks in captivity and treating them as animals.
Invoking Jefferson to condemn the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who were demonstrating Friday and Saturday is antithetical to Jefferson’s beliefs – and certainly to the life he led.
Jefferson owned 600 slaves during his lifetime, freeing only two men before he died and bequeathing freedom to five other men, believed to be his progeny, upon his death.
And that is part of why McAuliffe’s invocation of Jefferson hit me so hard. Our national healing cannot move forward if even well-meaning leaders don’t recognize the role our Founding Fathers played in seeding white supremacy.
I spent four weeks over this past year at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business as part of an executive leadership development program of the National Association for Multiethnicity in Communications (NAMIC). Forty of us professionals across the communications industry learned cases and took courses in marketing, competitive dynamics, corporate strategy, change management and finance.
But we also learned about ambiculturalism, which is how diverse groups become more effective when they learn and accept the best values from each other, and how we, as leaders of color in our industry, can be impactful and advance even when we find obstacles in our way.
Toward the end of the program we went on a tour of Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia home. The juxtaposition of learning about empowerment in class with the significance of Monticello was emotionally jarring. It was a magnificent estate and an important part of our history to see, but it was a reminder of how deeply flawed Jefferson and the foundation of our country really were.
Both Monticello and the University of Virginia (founded by Jefferson) have made strides to more openly acknowledge the painful contradiction of Jefferson’s slaveholding past. For example, a walking tour was added to UVA to show visitors where slaves lived and what role they played in building the university. So it was particularly sad to see the UVA campus infiltrated by such hatred.
When white nationalists rallied on Friday night, using torches reminiscent of Klan rallies, I wrote a note to my NAMIC classmates, sharing Charlottesville mayor Michael Signer’s strong condemnation of the rally and knowing that some of my classmates were probably recalling, as I was, how we felt after the Monticello tour.
“This is part of our national history – and national present – and we cannot escape it,” I wrote. “But we can all stand up to it and learn from it and be confident that the country is greater than the sum of its misguided parts.”
My father, a civil rights and community activist for more than 60 years, challenged my use of the phrase “stand up.” He thought it connoted physical resistance or violence. As an advocate of reconciliation and restorative justice, he wanted me to include “love” instead.
I refused, not because I don’t believe we should all love each other, but because what I needed to express was that those of us who reject white supremacy and racism need to feel empowered to oppose it.
Standing up can come in many forms, and we must all stand up in our own ways. We can’t let others intimidate us. We can’t let those motivated by hate and false notions of superiority control the narrative of this country any longer.
That was Saturday morning, before a driver weaponized his car and plowed it into a group of brave counterprotesters standing up against white nationalism and racism, killing one young woman, Heather Heyer.
The NAMIC program ended in May, but I now know that if we had still been there, many of us would have been risking our lives to stand up against white supremacy. And we wouldn’t have been invoking Jefferson’s name to do so.