Two weeks ago, I used memories of past public demonstrations to recount, or remind, readers of the prominence of protesting in our nation’s history. In trying to thread the needle of being fair to both sides, (once a politician always a politician) I wrote of annoyance with a single crude sign, and past panhandling agitation, but that our rights of speech and assembly were important and should prevail.

How surprising, and sad, it has been to watch the nation’s angst with this very issue.

Since then, each of those recollections has been relived in real times. The dogs unleashed in 1957 Little Rock are now at the ready in Washington. The curfews and mass arrests in 1969 Charleston are being reenacted in scores of cities across 2020 America. As the Ohio National Guard was called up to dominate 1970 Kent State students; many National Guard units have been activated with calls for re-enforcement by the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. The order by Mr. Nixon to shoot war-protesters are similarly being voiced now by President Trump: “when the looting begins, the shooting begins.”

The protections afforded citizens to peacefully assemble and to petition the government (free speech) are fundamental for a true republic. Trespassing and theft are not protected and are subject to arrest, trial and punishment; if warranted. But presumptive guilt and punishment, by shooting and roughing up thieves, are not legitimate.

(Overwhelmingly our police are professionals doing their jobs respectfully. Protesters far outnumber the looters but a guy running out of a store with a TV is more compelling video.)

The same Bill of Rights that authorizes and protects the right to bear arms similarly protects the right to congregate and tell the government it has lost its way. And for the same reason: the government is meant to be of, by, and for the people, not the other way around.

But if a citizen’s right to protest is only as allowed by the authorities, it is an empty promise. Without the ability to talk back, or shoot back (hopefully just figuratively), we become subjects of the crown not rulers of the roost.

But the problem generating dissent today is not one of legislation. My father would say that there have been a million laws written trying to enforce the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. I think he was right. And I think until we get our hearts right with our fellow man, and right with our God, we will never get our government right.

They call it America’s original sin — slavery. The history of the United States is incomplete without noting the role of white men enslaving black men. The physical subjugation of African men was not just that. It was also found necessary to further denigrate those ripped from their distant homes by denying them the dignity of their very humanity.

On March 21, 1861, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stevens gave what has been called the Cornerstone Address. In support of South Carolina’s proposed secession, he offered what he believed was the “great truth” of “white supremacy”:

“(the Confederacy’s) foundations are laid, the cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural order and normal condition.”

How else does one come to think so highly of themselves as to justify their owning another person? How else to think so little of other men as to equate the value of 20 Africans to “victuals”; as was done at Point Comfort, Virginia in 1619? Until we scrub every clump of this crud from our every pore, the United States can never fulfill its great potential.

Our Declaration of Independence asserts “all men are created equal” and entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Jesus declares in John 10:16, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”

Abraham Lincoln referenced a Bible passage to aid understanding of the problems in 1858 America when he said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” He was speaking of some states allowing slavery and others not. All our states may now be free, but not all of its inhabitants.

When the Declaration of Independence, the Bible, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Jesus are aligned in the single concept that we are, and should be, one, I am a believer.

Tracy Pyles, a former chairman and member of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors who lives in Augusta County, is a columnist for The News Virginian. His column is published Saturdays. He can be reached at tcpylesjr@hotmail.com.

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