This being Washington, D.C., where I write in the wake of the horrible shooting on Saturday of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and 19 other people in a Tucson shopping mall, many observers are rushing to calculate the role of our political culture in this tragedy. The questions fly off our TV screens, our laptops, our daily newspapers, demanding immediate answers.
Is the nation’s toxic political discourse—crosshair gun sights on Sarah Palin’s web page to target Gifford’s congressional district—to blame? What should President Obama do or say? Will anything change in the way some activists point to the government and its representatives as totems of all that’s evil in our culture? These questions, often followed by speculative opinions, fell from pundits’ lips well before the details of the shooter’s motives could be clearly understood.
“A day after the shooting of Ms. Giffords and 19 other people in Arizona focused the nation’s attention on the heat of its political culture, Republicans and Democrats began the delicate task of navigating a tragedy that has the potential to alter the political landscape,” wrote Jeff Zeleny and Jim Ruttenberg wrote in Sunday’s editions of The New York Times. “Yet beneath that public sense of comity was a subtle round of jockeying—on cable news, blogs, Twitter and even Ms. Palin’s Facebook page—as both sides sought to gain the high ground and deal with the risks and challenges presented by the shootings.”
This is the wrong way to reflect on the Tucson massacre. There are no winners, only losers, when individual acts of violence suddenly shatter political discourse. History ought to inform us that this sad incident in and of itself will change nothing politically, only inflicting unspeakable pain and suffering on undeserving people.
Yet our culture is ever-evolving and changing, I believe, for the better. Indeed, the enduring message of the last great surge of violence in our nation during the Civil Rights movement should remind Americans that attempting or even succeeding at assassinating community leaders never stops the march of history. More likely, the horror of violence pushes cultural changes along faster than those madmen who wield weapons desire or imagine.
Recall that other time in our history when the culture of segregation led similarly misguided and unbalanced Americans to behave in ways that today embarrasses them and the nation. With the endorsement and protection of the white Southern establishment—its business leaders, police, courtroom officials, and clergy—deranged and lawless individuals engaged in terrorism to staunch black freedom. The story of the Rev. George Wesley Lee of Belzoni, Mississippi, is an excellent case study.
An NAACP activist, newspaper publisher, and one of the first blacks to register to vote in Humphreys County, Lee was driving home shortly before midnight on May 7, 1955 when an unknown, white assailant fired three shot-gun blasts from a passing convertible car. He died before arriving at a local hospital and several days after receiving a letter that demanded he withdraw his name from the county’s voting rolls.
No one was ever charged with the assassination.
Lee’s funeral was a painful and emotional affair, a public cry against the injustices of the apartheid way of life in Mississippi and across Dixie. It drew NAACP President Roy Wilkins and civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who would be murdered himself eight years later. The Chicago Defender, then a nationally distributed black newspaper, published an open-casket photo of Lee’s perforated body.
Three months after Lee’s funeral, 14-year-old Emmett Till’s murder in nearby Money, Mississippi, galvanized the Civil Rights movement and set the stage for a decade or more of black activism that ultimately led to the political transformation of the South and the nation, including the election of President Obama as the nation’s first black president.
Lee’s name isn’t as well-known as Emmett Till’s, Medgar Evers’s or, of course, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s, among the long list of martyrs to the cause of Civil Rights. But Lee’s is the first name listed on the Southern Poverty Law Center Civil Rights Memorial, attesting to importance that little known individuals played in the steady march of history. I doubt the person who fired the shot gun to murder him ever imagined or welcomed the shape of history his cowardly act helped produce. He was not a winner any more than the slain Rev. Lee, and yet that act of violence sparked a movement in America that stripped our country of its most enduring stain.
And so it will be with the Arizona shootings. I believe the grief and pain will propel a refreshed culture of light despite the awful and desperate acts of a man who seemingly preferred to live in darkness. We may never fully comprehend what motivated Jared Loughner, the 22-year-old loner who is accused of shooting Giffords and those near her at the “Congress on Your Corner” in the Safeway grocery parking lot. The carnage left six people dead, including federal Judge John M. Roll; Gabriel Zimmerman, a congressional aide to Giffords; and Christina Green, a 9-year-old girl with a love of politics and government service.
Loughner’s ideological leanings are murky, but there’s no doubt he was influenced by the contemporary culture of anger directed at the federal government. Such intolerance tends to masquerade as dissent nowadays. After all, the shooter carefully chose to fire on a high-profile representative of the federal government, not an individual with whom he had a personal relationship or had directly wronged him. The shooting was a political statement, akin to the hyperbolic rhetoric espoused by some Americans who believe they can stop the world from spinning on its axis with indiscriminately fired bullets.
Pima County Sherriff Clarence W. Dupnik understands this all too well. Speaking to reporters at a nationally televised news conference, Dupnik made clear his worries about the quality of political chatter. “I’d just like to say that when you look at unbalanced people, how they are, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths, about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous,” he said.
In the South before the Civil Rights Movement such a statement would have been equally apt—if also unlikely to be uttered by a local sheriff—which is why I find hope amid the most recent violence. Our nation progresses for the good of all of us over time. This, too, could be one of those turning points.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.