Politicians are defined by their actions, but also by what they fail to do. I’m guessing that at least some of the Idaho State Senators who voted quickly and decisively last Friday to reject – without comment or testimony – a proposal to add anti-discrimination language to state law concerning gay, lesbian and transgender Idahoans are going to come to regret their votes. They failed to act on a basic question of civil rights and those who spoke with reporters afterward had trouble explaining why.
Almost certainly it came down to politics and a concern that a vote to expand anti-discrimination protection for those “not like us” would be difficult to explain to some voters. There have always been such votes – from slavery to civil rights – and sometimes those votes put people on the wrong side of history.
The arc of history indeed may, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, bend toward justice, but it often takes time and those who resist the march toward greater justice often find themselves explaining why they resisted.
When Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door in 1963 in an attempt to prevent the enrollment of two black students at the University of Alabama he probably couldn’t envision that one day an African-American running back, Trent Richardson, would score the only touchdown in the Crimson Tide’s national title winning game. Gov. Wallace was on the wrong side of history more than 40 years ago and his enduring political legacy, the race baiting and the cultivation of the worst instincts of his constituents, still echoes down from those profoundly wrong moments in the schoolhouse door.
Georgia Sen. Richard Russell was an icon of the Senate, so much so that one of the Senate office buildings in Washington carries his name. But it’s Russell’s dead end opposition to civil rights legislation from the 1930′s to the 1960′s and his bizarre explanation to Lyndon Johnson that couldn’t serve on the Warren Commission investigating John Kennedy’s assassination because he “didn’t like that man” Chief Justice Earl Warren that largely define his legacy today. Russell spent his long and, in many ways, distinguished career in the Senate, playing to the worst characteristics of his constituents on race and civil rights and he ended up on the wrong side of history.
The reverse can also be true – politicians are often rewarded for bucking prevailing sentiment, particularly when civil rights are involved.
Closer to home, few remember who opposed then-Idaho State Sen. Phil Batt’s efforts to create the Idaho Human Rights Commission, but the Commission and its anti-discrimination work remain a hallmark of Batt’s distinguished political career. The Commission, by the way, endorsed the legislation that died last week in the state senate.
Idaho was among the last states in 1990 to adopt a Martin Luther King holiday, but now the January commemoration of King’s birth and the cause of civil rights is an established ritual at the Idaho Statehouse. Young people, in particular, seem to relish the chance to celebrate King and his ideas. Few remember who voted, time and again, to defeat the King holiday idea, but those folks know who they are and on what side of the history line they stand.
The arc of history does bend toward justice – slowly – but bend it does.
Toward the end of his life the old segregationist George Wallace, four times governor of Alabama and nearly assassinated as a presidential candidate, sought redemption, in a way, for his political sins. He spent hours on the phone calling his old political enemies, including Congressman John Lewis who was severely beaten by an Alabama state trooper during a civil rights march. Wallace found that he needed to confess that he’d been wrong with his use of race to appeal to his constituents and gain political power. He realized that being on the wrong side was wrong.
Filmmaker Paul Stekler made a great film about Wallace and came to regard him as an amazing character. “He begins gifted at politics, an idealist in some ways,” Stekler told freelance writer Maggie Riechers. “He works all his life to become governor and just when it is within his grasp, he’s prevented from winning. He then makes a conscious decision to give up his ideals and embraces racism, which gives him political success and power, more than he ever believed possible. Then at the height of his success, he is struck down. At the end of his life he goes back to his roots.”
The wrong side of history must be an uncomfortable place to be, particularly when you can’t really explain why you’re there. Dr. King said it well: “It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.’”