While Washington churned, I walked along a quiet hillside above Montgomery, Ala., home of the year-old National Memorial for Peace and Justice , a monument to the 4,400 African Americans lynched by white mobs between Reconstruction and the civil rights era. There hang 800 oxidized steel columns — one for each American county where lynching occurred — like hideous lollipops. As I stood awed by the pain they represented, an older black man approached and told me about his ancestors who fought in colored regiments during the Civil War.
Then, as we gazed together at the dangling blocks of metal, he said something I don’t often pause to consider: “As bad as things are now,” he said, “we’ve gone through much worse.”
He’s right, of course. Robert Mueller exposed the rot in our government and the moral bankruptcy of our president. Donald Trump’s amoral team welcomed help from America’s foes to win the presidency, and in 10 well-documented instances, the president himself made every effort to obstruct justice. Whether he’s impeached, he’s patently unworthy of the office.
But for all the damage Trump has done, and will do, the United States remains a better place today than it was. My family began our tour of the South in downtown Birmingham, Ala., where in 1963 a bomb killed four girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church, and where Eugene “Bull” Connor turned his dogs and fire hoses on children. We stood at the cell door that confined Martin Luther King Jr. when he wrote his immortal “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”) — 56 years to the day earlier.
We ended in Memphis at the Lorraine Motel, where an assassin’s bullet killed King. In between, we saw Oxford, Miss., which rioted over integration, and Selma, Ala., where Sheriff Jim Clark’s men cracked young John Lewis’s skull as they used clubs and tear gas to stop the peaceful march Lewis led over the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Today, 79-year-old Lewis, a longtime member of Congress from Georgia, leads another cause. In January 2017, he became the first prominent Democrat to call Trump’s presidency illegitimate because of Russian interference. As the one man who stood against both Clark and Trump, Lewis has unrivaled authority to compare the two movements.
“In his own way,” Lewis tells me, Trump “is stirring up some of the ways of hate and division, and he happened to bring out some of the ugliness in America.” Sometimes, Lewis fears that “we have lost our way,” and turns to a Negro spiritual sung during the movement: “I’m so glad trouble don’t last always.”
But Lewis agrees with the man at the lynching memorial. “We have survived worse,” he tells me. And you don’t have to go back to slavery or to the depths of Jim Crow. “Even in the height of the civil rights movement, people were being beaten, arrested and jailed,” he says. “People were lynched, the Klan marched through . . . burning homes and churches, castrating African American men. So we have seen worse.”
From my removed vantage point on the civil rights trail, the Mueller report offered reasons for hope. It showed that some of Trump’s most-trusted advisers — Donald McGahn, Rick Dearborn, even Corey Lewandowski — thwarted his attempts to obstruct justice; Trump can’t blame a “deep state” conspiracy when even his closest aides resist his abuses. The Mueller report also illustrated how blessedly bumbling Trump and his team are — alternately ignorant of the law and unable to execute. Like the hotheaded Connor and Clark, whose clumsy responses to civil disobedience turned public opinion against them, the erratic Trump weakens his own cause.
We hear in Trump a refined version of Connor and Clark and George Wallace as he exploits racial fears that have always been with us. This time, it’s a fear of immigrants and minorities trying to “take away our history and our heritage,” as Trump says, leaving the “culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues” of Confederate heroes.
John Lewis stood against such ideas when he faced Clark’s thugs in 1965. I stand with Lewis today when he promises to cause all “necessary trouble” to face down Trump. “Whatever he tries to do, he cannot take us back,” Lewis says. “During the next few weeks and months and next year, there will be some setbacks. But the American people are not going back.”