This weekend’s violence in Charlottesville is an historic turning point.  It is one of those events in which a national trauma must be responded to locally, in order to preserve the nation’s social equanimity—and that has been under stress for a while now.  It doesn’t endure by itself.  Like the law, it has no magical power in-and-of-itself to survive.  Only when we put our respect and faith into action can either of them endure. 

The uneven response over the weekend from our elected officials was troubling.  Perhaps they are hoping this will blow over—or be overtaken by some other catastrophe—and they can avoid taking a stand.  Senator Cory Booker was one of the early voices showing moral leadership, with messages on Facebook and in Twitter, “…The evil of hatred isn’t just the overt torch-bearing bigots in Virginia. The evil of hate is also the ignorance that breeds it, the apathy that sustains it and the Trump-like rhetoric that gives it license to flourish…” Also, credit to Governor Christie for tweeting, “We reject the racism and violence of white nationalists like the ones acting out in Charlottesville.  Everyone in leadership must speak out.” 

This can’t be ignored. Those torch-bearing Nazis and Alt-Right white-tribalists, who desecrated the grounds of the University of Virginia Friday night and then showed up armed and in military garb the next day, are not going away.  They constitute a clear-and-present danger to the nation, every bit as perilous and intemperate as if they were carrying the black flag of ISIS.   

There has always been this under-current of racial animus and white superiority in our country; and New Jersey is no exception.  As I have previously reported, when it came to slavery, New Jersey was the most enthusiastic state in the North for keeping it going.  It is a shadow-self; and like our original sin of slavery, can’t be lost in our collective memory—just as we can never forget the Holocaust. 

President Trump’s articulation of a moral equivalency between the ultra-rightwing, white-supremacists and the counter-protestors is just another indicator that his moral compass is broken or nonexistent.  As the Bible says, “when there is no vision, the people perish.”  In a democracy, when the leadership is bereft of any vision, subsumed by their own self-interest, from where does the vision emanate?  From the people, themselves. 

We forget at our peril that both New Jersey and New York were the epicenter of the German-American Bund movement that fronted the American Nazi Party.  On February 20,1939, they drew 22,000 supporters to Madison Square Garden, where they met under the banner, “Stop Jewish Domination of Christians,” with a massive rendering of George Washington–whom they claimed was “the original America Nazi.” 

Thanks to Weird NJ, we have this first-hand account of the convergence of the KKK and the American Nazi movement in a huge rally in Andover, NJ. “Flames from the wooden cross, forty feet high, crackled into the night, throwing lurid shadows on the participants below, some of whom were dressed in hooded white robes, others in the gray uniforms of the German-American Bund,” wrote local North Jersey author and historian, Frank Dale. “The scene took place at Bund Camp Nordland in New Jersey on August 18, 1940, when the Klan staged a monster anti-war, pro-American mass meeting jointly with the Bund.”  

The attitudes associated with this axis endured subtly in the mainstream. As my 85 year-old mother, Patricia Lawrence, recalls that in Ridgewood (Bergen County), in those years, “if you were Jewish, you could only live in town if you owned a store there.”  She vividly remembers as a child going with her uncle to ride ponies out in Oakland, where they saw Hitler Youth marching in full regalia. “My uncle was horrified,” she said. 

She remembers that as late as the mid-60s, having to go to a town meeting in Glen Rock (Bergen County), where we lived, when a contingent of townspeople wanted to ban African-Americans from using the municipal pool.  “The truth was, these people had moved from places like the Bronx to ‘escape’ black people; and they wanted to ban people who had lived in town long before they got there,” she said.  

Unfortunately, we clean up our history every few decades, so we can distance ourselves from the worst of it.  Take the way we chose to remember New Jersey and slavery.  While New Jersey fought on the side of the Union in the Civil War, according to Jim Gigantino, professor of history at the University of Arkansas, New Jersey was the most enthusiastic Northern state when it came to holding on to slavery years after other Northern states had ended it.

Just before the end of the Civil War, New Jersey even voted down the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery; only voting to ratify it in 1866, after the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination months earlier. 

Gigantino, author of the recently released book, “The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey 1775-1865,” says that after the Civil War, New Jersey obscured its well-established support of slavery by choosing to “memorialize things about the end of slavery.” 

“So, when we talk about slavery in modern times we talk about emancipation or abolition of slavery,” Gigantino says. “This is a purposeful reinvention of New Jersey as part of the free North narrative of participation in the underground railroad, participating in this freedom process.” 

Professor Gigantino says his new research indicates that as many as 400 African-Americans remained in some form of slavery in New Jersey at the end of the Civil War, not the reported 18 long-accepted in the historical record.  

Scroll forward a hundred years, and the dominant narrative of the events of the civil unrest in Newark in 1967 usually excludes the deadly brutality displayed by the police and National Guard.  The tragic details are laid out in an official account compiled by “The Governor’s Select Commission on Civil Disorder.”  This February 1968 document, known as the Lilley Report after its chairman, then AT&T President Robert D. Lilley, has slipped into undeserved obscurity. 

In August 1967, a month after Newark had burned, Governor Hughes convened a blue-ribbon panel of religious, political, and legal leaders and charged them with generating “a realistic analysis of the disorders….and practical proposals” to help prevent a recurrence of the unrest. What the panel found was the State Police and National Guard actually had made a bad situation worse.” 

Over months of investigation, the panel took sworn testimony from more than 100 witnesses. After speaking with scores of Newark store owners and residents, the Commission concluded that members of both the police and the National Guard, motivated by racial prejudice, had used “excessive and unjustified force” on Newark residents, and had specifically targeted African-American-owned businesses for destruction.  

“These raids resulted in personal suffering to innocent small businessmen and property owners who have a stake in law and order and who had not participated in any unlawful act. It embittered the Negro community as a whole when the disorders had begun to ebb,” concluded the Commission.   

Perhaps the most volatile issue raised by the breakdown of order in Newark was that of sniper fire.  During the days of unrest law enforcement and the National Guard claimed that they were fired on by snipers, whose shots led to the deaths of a Newark police detective and a Fire Captain responding to a fire call.  While not outright rejecting this claim, the Lilley Report noted the doubts of Newark’s own Police Director at the time, Dominick Spina: “A lot of the reports of snipers was due to the, I hate to use the word, trigger-happy Guardsmen, who were firing at noises and firing indiscriminately, it appeared to me, and I was out in the field at all times.” 

Out of the 26 fatalities during the five days of unrest, 23 (including a number of innocent bystanders) were from gunshot wounds. The Lilley report estimated that the National Guard and N.J. State Police fired some 13,000 rounds in all.  No total was available for the local police, who reported killing people, seven “justifiably” and three “by accident.” 

We like to think that this kind of history happens someplace else.  

It was a very big deal in April 1968, when my father had me—a 12-year old—join him and a delegation from the Knights of Columbus, who went to the AME Zion African-American Church on Broad Street.  It was the Sunday after Dr. King was murdered, and we marched in solidarity with the African-American community.  It was a solemn occasion that I will never forget.  It was an ecumenical recommitment to what America might still yet become, despite the bloody violence we were drowning in.   

There was fear in that long, mournful march from Broad Street to the center of Ridgewood. Would someone throw something at us or jeer?  In the days before his death on April 4th, Dr. King had saturated New Jersey with appearances as he kicked off the Poor People’s March and made the provocative connection between the violence in Vietnam and the ongoing racist brutality here at home.   

On March 27, 1968, he had come to Paterson, the next town over from where I lived in Glen Rock. “The mood was tense because our intelligence had told us that he would be killed, someone was going to kill him, and they were tense about his coming,” recalls former Paterson Police Officer Benjamin Leak.  Leak, who is African American, was detailed to be part of King’s protection unit that day and recalls that King talked about the struggle of the sanitation workers in Memphis, where he was going next. 

That same day King made it to Newark.  How does our history remember his visit?  As the Star Ledger reported in 2008, “the King who visited Newark back in 1968 was moving further away from the mainstream.  He was talking about slavery restitution, guaranteed housing and withdrawal from the Vietnam war.”  

“At the end of his life, he’s really at the outer edges of his radical take on society and seeing the structural limitations for opportunities for people of color and people of limited means,” David Levering Lewis, an NYU professor and King biographer told the Star Ledger.  “What he’s really saying is, ‘This America doesn’t work for everyone, only for the rich.’”  

That was a “radical” take on society?  

If King were with us today, what he would find in New Jersey is a massive African-American foreclosure crisis and the 5th most segregated state for African-Americans, with 50.8 percent of black students in extremely segregated schools, according to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.  

He would have lots of candidates for the Poor People’s Campaign.  Here in New Jersey, the actual economic conditions people are living in include 1.2 million households that continue to fall behind, according to the United Way.  Consider that in Newark, 64 percent of the families live in poverty or struggle paycheck-to-paycheck.  In Atlantic City that number is 72 percent.  

We should be in the streets protesting every day.

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7 responses to “Post-Charlottesville”

  1. Just because folks are anti-Nazi, or whatever, doesn’t make them acceptable. I loathe Commies for their anti-Democratic and Republican principles. The President was correct in blaming both sides. Personally, the media shares blame for stoking this up.

    • Roger, I loathe pseudo Nazi’s like you! You can make accusations and false equivalencies but “both sides” are not to be blamed. Your support of these fascists is pretty clear; your attempt to equate Nazis with people fighting them defames the American’s who died in WWII fighting fascists in Europe. I will not let this go unchallenged. This isn’t about the media, this is about people allowing racist dog whistles to go on for years and now these hateful people have found a voice in the current occupant of the White House.

      • Steve, you have a lot of anger. And your use of straw men shows the deficiency in public education. BTW I have fought any form of fascism which I was in charge of. So there, Buckwheat.

  2. Where have I apologized for fascists? You are so blinded by your anger that you let your small genitalia over ride that organ between your ears. Pity that you’ll die alone.

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