In August 2017, civil rights activist Heather Heyer was killed when a car ploughed into a group protesting against a rally of white nationalists and supremacists, who opposed the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee from a park in Charlottesville, Virginia. Hours later, while patrolling the rally, Virginia state police troopers Lieutenant H Jay Cullen and Berke MM Bates died in a helicopter crash.
It was a reminder, as though one were needed, that a very dark river “runs through American history” in the words of author and academic Adam Hochschild.
“The most notorious of all the currents in this dark river,” remarks Hochschild in the New York Review of Books, “has been the Ku Klux Klan. It flourished first in the South after the Civil War, lynching and terrorising African-Americans who tried to vote, and then gradually disbanded in the early 1870s under pressure from the federal government.
After a long spell of quiescence, it re-emerged in the 1920s, reaching a peak membership in 1924 — a year, incidentally, that saw the dedication of Confederate memorials, including the Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, whose planned removal was the pretext for the “Unite the Right” rally in August.
After another eclipse, the Klan roared back to life a third time in protest against the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Among other acts of violence, Klansmen took part in the murder of three voter registration workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi, in the summer of 1964 — James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman.”
It is important to question why white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Klu Klux Klan had the nerve to resurface in August under the pretext of a protest rally. Is this the vengeance of disaffected, frustrated, resentful white Americans who see in Donald Trump — surely the most inadequate United States president in history — their symbol of a return to enforcing a “normative” way of life, the usual state of things?
Is this a rejection of the Washington establishment, its pompous sense of entitlement and everything else it represents? Or is this payback for Americans having “the audacity of hope” to vote for and re-elect America’s first black president, Barack Obama?
The idea that his election would suddenly transform the US into a post-racial paradise was always as much a myth as the assumption that the election of Nelson Mandela would give rise to a rainbow nation where all races in South Africa would live in peace and harmony.
Hillary Clinton needs to take stock of the legacies of her own considerable experience — 30-odd years in politics and public service, including as a governor’s wife in Arkansas, as first lady and as US secretary of state — even if it would still have been ground-breaking to have had her as America’s first woman president.
The allegation that Russian hacking of confidential Democratic Party emails, which were then passed on to WikiLeaks, may have influenced the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election ought to be handled with as much seriousness as The Washington Post investigations of the 1972 Watergate break-in (also at the expense of the Democratic National Committee), culminating in the downfall of then US president Richard Nixon.
Still, both Hillary and Bill Clinton need some time away from the public glare to inquire into how and why it was possible for Trump, a billionaire businessman with no experience in public office, to beat her to the White House.
Trump is, after all, the man who went after Obama, insisting that he produce his birth certificate to prove that he is American-born; who was offensive in his generalisations about Mexicans and Muslims; who indulged in misogyny and, while on the campaign trail, mockery of a New York Times reporter with a disability. The same Trump who couldn’t bring himself to condemn the violent bigotry on display in Charlottesville, preferring instead to hide behind platitudes.
“To have some redneck ride into power on the steed of racism was for me too much,” declared Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, explaining why he destroyed his green card after the election of Trump.
There is something, all the same, to be said for ego-pricking, conscience-prodding, consciousness-raising nonviolent protest. It puts on display some of the finest elements of the human spirit: alertness to social injustice, empathy, sensitivity to human suffering, humane principle.
In August, a car driven by an alleged rightwinger ploughed into a group of counter-protesters in Virginia.
In September, Colin Kaepernick, a football quarterback with the 49ers in the US National Football League, bravely refused “to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour” by not standing during the national anthem before a game.
Kaepernick, who later left the 49ers, seems cut from a similar cloth as Black Lives Matter, which started in 2013 as a protest movement after a spate of killings of unarmed black people.
On February 26 2012, Trayvon Martin (17) was shot dead in Sanford, Florida, by neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman who had declared Martin “suspicious”. Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder.
Michael Brown, the 18-year-old accused of robbing a store, died in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9 2014 after police officer Darren Wilson fired 12 shots as Brown moved in the officer’s direction. Wilson was cleared of the crime and was not indicted.
Eric Garner (43) died in Staten Island, New York City, on July 17 2014 after he was clamped in a chokehold by Daniel Pantaleo, an officer with the New York City Police Department, despite Garner making 11 pleas of “I can’t breathe” and the chokehold being a contravention of NYPD rules. There was an out-of-court settlement but Pantaleo and his NYPD colleague, Justin Damico, were not indicted.
Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot in Cleveland, Ohio, on November 22 2014 by Timothy Loehmann, a police officer who “assumed” that the child’s toy gun was a real one. Rice died the next day. No charges were brought against Loehman and Frank Garmback, another police officer at the scene of the shooting.
It is within this grim historical — indeed, contemporary — context that Kaepernick’s gesture of protest in the professional American football league has to be located. His principled stand against racist bigotry and police violence and the gunning down of unarmed black people may recall the black-gloved Black Power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the African-American track and field athletes who won gold and bronze in the 200m at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
They saluted during the medal ceremony “for those individuals who were lynched, or killed and that no one said a prayer for, who were hung and tarred” and “for those thrown off the side of the boats in the Middle Passage [as part of the slave trade]”.
The stands against social injustice taken by Black Lives Matter and Kaepernick also evoke an epochal event of 60 years ago.
On September 25 1957, nine African-American teenage pupils (the six girls and three boys referred to as the Little Rock Nine) defied an America of Jim Crow segregation to attend the all-white Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas. Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed and Melba Pattillo Beals endured vicious bigotry from racists, despite the fact that in 1954, the US Supreme Court had, in the landmark ruling of Brown v Board of Education, rendered segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
Three weeks earlier, the National Guard, operating under the orders of Orval Faubus, governor of Arkansas, had denied the African-American pupils access to the school’s premises, preventing them from enrolling at the beginning of term.
Sixty years on, America has still not been able to erase the stain of racism and racial separation in its schools and housing projects, especially in its inner cities. Kaepernick’s decision to “take a knee” was a way of reminding America of how urgent the conversation about race and racial violence remains.
Idowu Omoyele is a student of the Graduate School in Humanities at the University of Cape Town