August 19, 2017 — In 2011, I saw the Arc de Triomphe in Paris for the first time. We were on a tour bus after a long day of sightseeing around the City of Lights. The diffuse autumn light gave the monument an other-worldly look. I took a picture through the bus window, because of my immediate visceral reaction to seeing this famous site.
I never felt prouder as an American. I pictured the Allied forces liberating Paris, marching by the Arc, down the Champs Elysees where months before Hitler’s goons had marched. I’ve traveled all over the United States, but this was my first trip to Europe.
This particular trip to France has been in my heart and mind since the horrific events in Charlottesville. Hundreds of young, white men, looking like young fathers out for a day at our local mall, marched to protest the potential removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. They wore white polo shirts and khaki pants and carried tiki torches, outdoor lights ubiquitous on patios across the country.
These hundreds of men do not represent other Americans who look like them. They are not the Everyman. These men in white Polo shirts and khaki pants are white supremacists, neo Nazi’s, the KKK, and other fringe groups that don’t speak for me. They applaud and honor the very regime we defeated in World War II, because of an indefensible, unexplainable fear of people of color.
How can any person calling himself an American identify with a system that killed (rather, exterminated) six million defenseless Jews? These crimes affected men and women, infant and child, elderly and disabled, many captured from homes in the middle of the night and taken by train cars to concentration camps, and ultimately, gassed in showers. The group of marchers in Charlottesville embraces Hitler’s Aryan vision — their desire is to keep the flame of the Confederacy burning. They want whites to stay as the majority population in the United States. Of course, they don’t want to be the minority. Look how we treat minorities in this country.
The marcher’s hatred also denigrated thousands of American soldiers in World War II. Our history did not start well in the seventeenth century, beginning with our stealing lands from the native people. We usurped everything that belonged to the natives who were already here. This violence attitude culminated in the violent action of “Trail of Tears,” a death march of 125,000 native Americans to the southwest in the 1830s. And ultimately, the division between races caused a great Civil War, which found states in the south separating and committing treason against the union.
We still fight that war, not with cannons, but with words. and sometimes baseball bats, guns, and even, automobiles. We continue treating people of color in this country as if they are less than white people. We fail to understand that our skin color gives us automatic privilege. We do not acknowledge an inherent bias, long steeped in our culture.
The American Civil War was fought over slavery, white men who believed it was their birthright to own people of color. “Whites only” is a culture and a way of life that needs preserving? Never.
Despite our checkered past (and present), we fought and conquered the Axis powers. Our grandparents made tremendous sacrifices at home and abroad for the freedom of the world. The Charlottesville marchers laughed in the face of the brave ones who fought for a cause greater than themselves. Timothy Egan wrote in yesterday’s New York Times.
“Before they die, before they disappear into the opaque mist of history, the last Americans to fight Nazi Germany have to face one more blast of something they thought they’d eliminated in the bloodiest war of all time.
Every day we lose an average of 362 World War II veterans — the boys from the Bronx, the farmers from Nebraska, the kids yanked from late-adolescent languor to fight a monster.”
Take a walk through any military cemetery where monuments feature real heroes. They are not the mass-produced, hollow statues hastily erected in southern towns during the Jim Crow era or the 1960s, by people afraid of becoming the minority. They are small monuments, crosses, Stars of David, symbols of Islam. These monuments represent our grandparents, privates, and generals, who fought on the beaches of Normandy, Italy, Belgium, Germany. They earned the freedom of speech, many paying with their lives, we all so cherish.
The freedoms that allow the Charlottesville marchers to express their horrible views were won on the backs of those who fought in World War II. The heroes of World War II were not exclusively white. They were from all creeds and races, even Japanese. As Japanese Americans like my sister-in-law’s father, Samuel Onoda, fought in World War II, other Japanese Americans were interred in camps within the continental United States. Even in our finest hour, we could not recognize our shared humanity.
Freedom of speech, however, does not absolve the consequences of said speech. Nor does freedom of speech equate to inciting a riot. Freedom of speech does not mean intimidating others by marching in helmets, shields, and carrying automatic weapons.
I wonder if the marchers in Charlottesville had grandparents or great grandparents who stepped up for the call for freedom in WWII.
If you like Barb Hamp Weicksel’s work, check out her author page on Amazon. Her books make beautiful gifts.
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