A scene from the Charlottesville protest. Photo courtesy Virginia State Police

Recently, one of the many cable pundits was wondering if the blackface revelations from Virginia’s political leaders created a teaching moment.

Instead, why not first revisit some of the ”teaching moments” of the past and ask if we absorbed the lessons that should have been inherent in what we were witnessing.

What have we learned from the decades of lynchings in this country, the most being in my home state of Mississippi? It took until 2018 for the United States Senate to pass a bill that classified lynching as a federal hate crime. The first anti-lynching bill was introduced in 1918. That teaching moment only took a century to mature.

And, in case you didn’t notice, the presiding officer when the vote unfolded was Mississippi’s Cindy Hyde-Smith, the same senator who said she would be “on the front row” for a public hanging if a supporter invited her.

What have we learned from the roll call of the dead in the civil rights battles? The names of the martyrs have been written in blood: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Medgar Evers in Mississippi; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Viola Liuzzo in Tennessee; Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, all 14 years old, and Denise McNair, 11, in Birmingham, Alabama.

What have we learned from the bravery of Rosa Parks who refused to no longer sit in the back of the bus? Or from the Little Rock nine who confronted the jeers and threats of a crowd to integrate a high school, or from the sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, or the bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, or the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965?

What have we learned from the brutal slayings of nine people in an historic black Charleston, S.C., church, nine worshippers engaged together in prayers gunned down by a young white man? Or from the day of rage in Charlottesville, Va., when a group of white supremacists came to town and a violent clash broke out, leaving one woman dead, and the President claiming there were good people on both sides?

In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson created the Kerner Commission in an attempt to better understand the genesis of the riots that had crashed across America, from Watts in Los Angeles to the streets of Newark in New Jersey, and many locations in between.

Gregory Favre

The final report was much more scathing than Johnson anticipated and he did little to achieve its recommendations.

But its most quoted passage rings loudly in our memories: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one white, one black, separate and unequal.”

Then in 1998, President Bill Clinton received a report from his presidential panel that studied racism in America. He believed at the time that the board had ”raised the consciousness and quickened the conscience of America.” And that “they have moved us closer to our ideal, but we have more to do.”

The panel, chaired by the late Dr. John Hope Franklin, declared that the greatest promise of the 21st Century would “lie in our ability to harness the strength of our racial diversity.” And that the greatest challenge would be “in accepting and taking pride in defining ourselves as a multi-racial democracy.”

Looking through the lens of history it appears that both the promise and the challenge remain in the dustbin of our indifference.

Which reminds me of a line spoken by the Finch’s housekeeper, Calpurnia, in Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant Broadway version of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Sorkin has given the character a stronger and more assertive voice.

So when Atticus tries to argue that Maycomb needs more time to overcome racism, Calpurnia mockingly replies, “How much time would Maycomb like?”

How much time?

Gregory Favre is the former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee and retired vice president of news for the McClatchy Company. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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