This afternoon, in the hot center of the state of Alabama, a parade of Americans will pay homage to a historic march. Meeting on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, on which hundreds of black Americans were beaten for the crime of standing up to their government, Barack Obama will remember a heroic feat of rebellion, and a brutal act of repression. The president, the White House has announced, will speak personally “about what it means to stand on the spot where police beat and gassed 600 unarmed protestors,” and he will explain what the moment means to him as an African American.
And the Republican party’s current leadership will be nowhere to be seen.
By declining to join, Ohio representative Marsha Fudge told Politico, the GOP has “lost an opportunity to show the American people that they care.” Fudge is, of course, entirely correct. But the absence is far, far worse than that. By electing to skip the proceedings — and to send a former president and a handful of congressional representatives in lieu — the Republican leadership suggests that it does not recognize what Selma represents within America’s long history of public dissent.
The United States regards itself as a nation of revolutionaries and of rebels — of those radicals, renegades, and rabble-rousers who stood tall in the face of tyranny and shouted for all the world to hear that they would not go gentle into that good night. On the right, American disobedience is typically represented by a few, ancient images. It is Washington crossing the Delaware; Patrick Henry proclaiming that he would regard as acceptable options only liberty and death; and Thomas Jefferson and his band of seditionists pledging each other “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” It is the brutal winter in Valley Forge, and the inspiration of Philadelphia. It is Trumbull’s imaginative painting, and the reluctant voices that cried out from within the early colonial factions and conceded that there was no choice for Americans but to join or to die. When it comes time each year to remember these moments, Republicans rally as one.
On July Fourth, we read the Declaration of Independence, and in doing so we reaffirm that all men are created equal and that we will permit no “long train of abuses and usurpations” to reduce us “under absolute Despotism.” In our political disputes we thrill to the promises of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Often, our answer to what ails America is “James Madison.” Naturally, this is all well and good — deeply moving, even. And yet if we simultaneously forget for whom the country’s foundational “promissory note” has burned the brightest — and for whom it remained for so long an elusive source of “great deliverance” — our celebrations will run the risk of being distressingly incomplete, perhaps even hollow.
Modern history has judged the British colonists to be moral monsters, and Hollywood has happily played along with the conceit. In our movies and our popular culture, we commonly attribute to the king’s soldiers a series of atrocities of which they were by no means guilty, and we overstate, too, the extent to which the colonists’ basic rights were being violated. But the harsh truth of American history is that, in comparison with the tyrannies that would come later, the colonists of the 18th century had it pretty good. Theirs were the problems of political representation and of interrupted commerce, not of death and enslavement. Their fight was with a foreign power that had unwisely elected to reverse its policy of salutary neglect and to re-involve itself in the affairs of men who had all but moved on; it was not an exterminating and totalitarian force that determined to hang dissenters from trees and to assert itself as superior no matter what the injuries to liberty or to decency.
That the Founders fought their war anyway was admirable. That the leading voices of their era had the presence of mind to hijack the American revolution and to codify a set of radical principles into a national charter was even more so. Indeed, we might today learn a great deal from a political culture that, per Burke, preferred to detect “ill principle” not by “actual grievance” but instead to “judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle” and to “augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.” And yet our celebration of their fortitude is rendered as folly if we forget that, for all that the rebels went through, they were not facing down evil in its purest form.
That task would fall to other Americans — many of whom would pay a terrible price for their rebellions. Eventually, after a century-long struggle and a series of yo-yoing attempts, the twin horrors of slavery and segregation would indeed fall to posterity — but only after they had presented challenges that eclipsed those that were posed during the Revolution. The two eras are essentially incomparable. The crime of the British in America was to deny British conceptions of good government to a people who had become accustomed to it, and to do so capriciously. The crime of white supremacy in the South was, in the words of Ida B. Wells, to “cut off ears, toes, and fingers, strips off flesh, and distribute portions” of any person whom the majority disliked, and to do so in many cases as a matter of established public policy. When Paul Revere warned that “the regulars are coming,” he was alerting his neighbors against an invading force to which more than half the country felt it belonged; when a teenaged Rosa Parks conceded that she wanted to see her grandfather “kill a Ku-Kluxer,” she was fighting for her very survival.
If we are to regard the founding generation as being worthy of contemporary political lionization — and we most assuredly should — then we must consider those who marched at Selma to be so, too. If we are to put George Washington upon our plinths, and to eulogize him on our currency, we must agree to elevate Martin Luther King Jr. to the same dizzy heights. They are less famous, perhaps, but by virtue of their brave march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, John Lewis and Hosea Williams immortalized themselves into quintessential American heroes in the mold of Sam Adams and George Mason. To miss an opportunity to solemnize their daring is to blunder, disgracefully.
If all men really are created equal, the anniversary of Selma must be treated as a date every bit as important to American history as is the end of the Siege of Yorktown. As it would be unthinkable for the leadership of the Republican party to ignore July Fourth, it should be unthinkable for its luminaries not to celebrate the anniversary of the March to Montgomery either. Where have you gone, Speaker Boehner, a movement turns its lonely eyes to you.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Since this article was written, CNN has reported that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy will attend the march “after all.”