Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey is an interim member of The Charlotte Observer editorial board and the 2016 James K. Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.
Justin Fairfax, the first black person elected to statewide office in Virginia in a generation, recently did what most black people in the South have been doing for decades: quietly, peacefully protesting the region’s long embrace of white supremacy.
Earlier this week, Fairfax momentarily handed off his duties as presiding officer of the Virginia Senate so as not to participate when a state senator stood to speak in honor of Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, a ritual so routine that Democrats and Republicans have been doing it annually without batting an eye. They were doing it again, despite the white supremacist march in Charlottesville last August, where a young woman was killed and others wounded when a car plowed into a throng of counterprotesters. They were doing it even after the strong show of force during the most recent election in Alabama, in which voters of color came out in full force to register their disgust about the blatant bigotry accepted by President Donald Trump and many of those who support him.
Fairfax’s act was so subtle, many observers didn’t even notice. That reminds me of what Greg Hembree, a white state legislator in South Carolina, said when word began spreading that people wanted the Confederate flag taken off Statehouse grounds in the wake of the massacre committed in a black church by Dylann Roof.
“It’s an issue that hasn’t been an issue for the three years I’ve been (in the South Carolina Senate),” he said in June of 2015.
Hembree didn’t know the flying of the Confederate flag had long been – and always would be – a sore spot for many black residents, because he had seen no loud protests in the years before the killing of nine black people during Bible study. Black residents make those kinds of messy and difficult calculations every day. It’s why I never considered shopping at a nursery that flew the Confederate flag and vowed to never spend a dime in a North Myrtle Beach restaurant called “Tar Baby’s.” Our protests are often subtle.
It’s long been a dilemma of black people in the South. If you protest and let your anger be known, you risk being called purveyors of hate or “outside agitators,” and being accused of hardening racial divisions or stirring the pot. If you swallow your anger to get along with white counterparts who revere ancestors who raped and beat and enslaved your ancestors, you risk being accused of not really caring about symbols such as the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments. Your silence is used to suggest you are OK with how things are.
Fairfax registered his anger, not with marches and chants, but with a quiet protest that should shame every other Virginia legislator who had neither the foresight nor moral courage to ask why Confederate heroes were still being honored by a public body.
That’s the rub. Private ceremonies by white private citizens on private property honoring Robert E. Lee or Jackson or Jefferson Davis or John C. Calhoun wouldn’t be enough. For Confederate lovers and apologists, people of color must be forced to honor those men, too. The tax dollars of people of color must be used to construct and maintain large Confederate monuments and Confederate flags flying and displayed on public property. It must be that way even though black people had to survive chattel slavery, then a succession of violent white mobs who brought reconstruction to an end, then a century’s worth of lynchings, then Jim Crow. It must be rubbed in our faces every day, not just on bumper stickers on pick-up trucks or in display windows of beachwear stores, but mindlessly by those we send to state capitals to represent us all.
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Justin Fairfax’s small gesture was a reminder of the power of nonviolent protest and the importance of standing firm on principles even when everyone around you mindlessly participated in wrongdoing. I don’t know how successful his tenure as lieutenant governor will be, but he’s already made a difference.