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Bill Britt

Opinion | Jesus instructed, let your words be true, but that doesn’t apply at State House

Bill Britt

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Many elected officials in Alabama profess profound allegiance to biblical teachings, but do they actually practice those principles?

In two distinct instances during the Legislative Session, promises made to individuals and the people of the state have been broken.

Jesus instructed his followers to let their words be true.

In Matthew 5:33 (NIV), Jesus said, “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”

In other words, when you say yes, it means yes and when you say no, it means no. Simple enough for a child to understand.

James 5:12 (KJV) restates Jesus’ message saying, “But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.”

The Pharisees who in biblical times were a politico-religious sect, in many ways like our modern-day religious lawmakers, had various oaths they would swear to and, depending on the type of promise they made, they could break them without it being seen as technically dishonest.

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As a commentary on Bible Gateway explains, “Jesus confronted the Pharisaic practice of using various formulas to create different levels of oaths, some of which were considered less binding than others. The Pharisees could thereby bind themselves to their promises in various degrees and so excuse themselves from keeping commitments they had made with lesser oaths. They could use their oaths to sound exceedingly pious and to justify themselves as deeply religious while being in fact hypocritical.”

Two months ago, legislators promised that money from the gas tax increase would only be used for roads, bridges and the Port of Mobile.

The port was included in the gas tax measure because the federal government would pay 75 percent of the cost to expand the port.

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But SB268, a bill filed by Sen. Arthur Orr and co-sponsored by 11 other senators, both Democrats and Republicans, diverts $10 million annually from the proceeds of the gas tax to fund repairs and construction at inland ports all around the state. (Or any other project if you read the fine print.)

Opinion | No surprise at all: Lawmakers are already trying to get their hands on gas tax money

The bill passed out of the Senate on a 30-0 vote.

So, here our pious lawmakers in the Senate promised not to pillage gas tax funds but did it anyway.

Politicians are not trusted because so many don’t keep their word. At least here in Alabama, some lawmakers are not inclined to keep their promises because they count on voters not paying attention or to vote straight party, which means there are no consequences for lying.

Being truthful has its own reward because even if people don’t like what you say, they can trust your word.

We are taught as children, or at least I was, that a person’s word is their bond.

Honest men and women do not need to swear on a stack of bibles or their mothers’ graves because if they say yes, it means yes, and no means no.

Another glowing example of a lawmaker giving his word and then breaking it is Sen. President Pro Tempore Del Marsh.

Marsh agreed to co-sponsor a lottery bill offered by Sen. Jim McClendon.

McClendon’s lottery legislation was similar to a bill sponsored by Marsh in 2015.

In 2015, Marsh penned an op-ed outlining the impact of his lottery bill on the state.

“Alabama lottery and casino gaming would create a $1.2 billion annual economic impact for the state of Alabama, and generate almost $400 million in new revenue for state programs, according to a new research study by the Institute for Accountability and Government Efficiency at Auburn University of Montgomery,” Marsh wrote. “In addition, the study found that more than 11,000 new jobs would be created if casino gaming were allowed at the current facilities located in Mobile, Birmingham, Macon and Greene County.”

Opinion | Del Marsh: Let the people vote on a lottery and gaming (2015)

Lottery legislation presented by McClendon would have created as many jobs and produced as much revenue as Marsh’s. But, at the 11th hour, Marsh blindsides his Senate colleague by joining forces with Sen. Greg Albritton to support a lottery that cost jobs and only raised about $150 million in income. In the bargain, Albritton’s bill also ensures the Poarch Creek Band of Indians not only keeps its gaming monopoly but can expand it exponentially.

Albritton is an agent of the Poarch Creeks. He makes no bones about the fact that he is doing the Tribe’s bidding. But what is worse is Albritton is representing the Tribe at the expense of the people of Alabama.

Albritton, a Mormon, certainly understands the teaching of his church.

“Nothing else is quite so despicable and cowardly as a lie,” said President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., who served as a counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1933, until his death in 1961.

Perhaps Albritton wasn’t lying when he didn’t tell his friend, McClendon, that he was killing his bill. Maybe that’s just what cowards do. And perhaps he was being coy about how the bill profited the Poarch Creeks. He wasn’t telling everything he knew. Biblically, there are lies of omission and lies of commission. Surely, Albritton, a self-identified believer, knows that.

But why did Marsh change his mind? Why was his promise to McClendon breakable? Why does he now support a bill opposite the one he championed just a few short years-ago?

Only he knows the real reason, and he’s not straightforward about why he reneged on McClendon, but most likely it was to please the Poarch Creeks.

It seems the power of the Poarch Creeks even trumps Senate decorum if such a thing truly exists.

And so it appears that for some it is easy to claim one’s adherence to Jesus while blatantly disobeying the most basic tenets of his teachings.

Both the gas tax and the lottery are essential pieces of legislation. The lottery as it now stands is a gift to the Poarch Creek and a bust for the people. Albritton and Marsh know that is a fact.

Surely Orr and 29 other senators knew that a vote to divert gas tax money was a breach of trust.

But lying doesn’t seem to matter to those who like the Pharisees of old season – their oaths with a dash of hypocrisy.

What a difference it would make for our state if elected officials lived the words of Jesus instead on simply mouthing them for votes.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | A search for the American conscience

Our response to the immediate crisis will surely determine our long-term destiny, and the collective conscience of “we the people” can be the moral force that brings about needed change.

Bill Britt

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U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights with a quill pen. (Stock photo)

A seemingly unstoppable virus, a sputtering economy and a cry for equal justice for Black citizens are trying the very soul of our nation. We stand at a time when the very conscience of our county and state is being tested in ways perhaps unimaginable just a few months ago.

Is there an American conscience?

Our government, our institutions and even who we are as a people are in question, and as with life in general, there are no easy answers.

Nearly 130,000 in the U.S. have lost their lives to COVID-19. In Alabama, almost 1,000 souls, and yet some of our citizens don’t even believe the virus exists, and if it does, some think it is not as bad as health professionals say.

Hospitals are being pushed to the brink, both physically and financially. While unemployment numbers are improving, there is a yet a steep hill to climb before fiscal solvency is restored to all Alabamians.

There are arguments over masks, fights over monuments and some are corrosively dismissive of the social injustice that disproportionately targets Black citizens.

The winds of change are blowing seeds of renewal; will they find a fallow ground or fall among the weeds and rocks?

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Many of our citizens want the nation to remain in the past, a past that, for the most part, never existed. Others desire that the country move forward and fulfill its greatest promises.

Can a house divided stand?

This national crisis of moral conscience is where the dividing line is drawn.

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The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil.”

In this rendering, it is as if an unseen umpire sits somewhere in our minds and judges our actions.

But if the conscience is formed from birth and as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests, “is like an empty box that can be filled with any type of moral content,” then our learning and understanding is the umpire and not some innate righteous force.

Is this why seemingly reasonable people see things so differently?

Take, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement. According to a recent CBS/YouGov poll, a majority of the American public, including more than half of white Americans, say they agree with the Black Lives Matter movement’s ideas.

The June CBS/YouGov survey also found a partisan divide exists on the issue with most Democrats and Independents supportive while a “large majority of Republicans say they disagree with the ideas expressed by the Black Lives Matter” and most Republicans also oppose the protests—though “one-quarter of Republicans join that majority of Democrats in supporting them.”

The poll is neither startling nor unimaginable and only confirms a divided nation.

The same schism can be found when individuals are polled about the new coronavirus and monuments.

Since individuals see things through entirely different apertures, is it possible to turn to a national conscience for resolution?

On December 23, 1776, Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

Paine was rallying the people of the American colonies to a revolution that would form a new nation with an aspirational promise of equality and unalienable rights, “that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

America just celebrated its 244th year of independence and the principles of the new nation were well-defined — even if not universally applied.

For Black Americans, the promise of the founding principles is yet unfulfilled.

Yes, the laws changed in the 60s, but there is still a long way to go in practice. Laws in themselves do not alter hearts and minds.

Alabama’s 1901 Constitution was written to deny equal access to justice for Black and poor Alabamians by keeping Montgomery as the power center from which all money and rights would flow. There have been changes but none so great as to amend the wrongs written into the state’s founding document.

A few short years ago, the state government passed a law that protected Confederate monuments that state lawmakers thought should be preserved as part of Southern heritage.

What monuments are revered speaks to national and local character. Is our character one that says we should honor those who sought to ensure the continuance of human bondage?

Should we honor those who preached and enforced segregation for political gain?

There is another way to look at statues and that is to realize that they are more reflective of the thinking at the time than the shrine itself.

If monuments are artifacts of the moment and not truthfully to honor history, then what they mean today is an open subject for debate.

Is the statue of Jefferson Davis on the Capitol grounds in Montgomery a symbol of who we are now or a reminder of who Alabama citizens were at the time it was erected?

This is not about erasing history but about recognizing monuments for what they are and acknowledging their meaning to all citizens.

The fact that most world religions warn against idols shouldn’t be lost in the moment either. Statues are tricky because heroes are almost always redefined by present events.

While nations should be built on laws alone, they are also made on myths and legends. But history has a way of exposing myths and bringing legends low.

Washington could tell a lie, Honest Abe was not always truthful, and under our current law application, some people are more equal than others. Should their memorials be removed because they were flawed? No

In his work “Adam Smith on the nature and authority of conscience,” Albert Shin argues, “there is a need to cultivate our conscience. We do so; I will argue, primarily through encountering diversity, which leads to disagreements, which prompt us to reevaluate how we judge others.”

Again the Catholic Church finds, “Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them.”

Are we more divided than ever? Probably not.

Is there a way out of the present threefold dilemma? Yes.

Returning to our founding principles while understanding that they are for everyone is a start. But principles shouldn’t change with every election or be sacrificed to win one.

Indeed, King George III thought those who staged the Boston Tea Party were thugs and looters, set to overthrow the government.

No, they were ordinary citizens who saw injustice and launched a revolution.

Today, we do not see so much a call for revolution but a demand for evolution across a broad front of problems.

There is now a need for better respect for health and science, for our neighbors of all skin colors and a rethinking of the inequities of poverty.

Our response to the immediate crisis will surely determine our long-term destiny, and the collective conscience of “we the people” can be the moral force that brings about needed change.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Who will stand and lead?

Bill Britt

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Alabama is beset by a worldwide pandemic, economic collapse and a growing cry for social justice for its black citizens.

Anyone of these crises alone would require superior leadership of conscience, fortitude and political skill. But at this moment, who is leading?

The silence of the state’s top leaders is troubling but speaks to the paralyzing effects of polarizing politics.

As the number of sick, hospitalized and dying from COVID-19 continues to rise in Alabama, the voices of those in charge are painfully silent.

Has the state abdicated its responsibility for the health and safety of its citizens in favor of hoping for a quick economic rebound?

In the wale of the protest that began with the killing of George Floyd and continues today, on the Republican side, only a few have offered constructive comments.

In a recent column Congressman Bradley Byrne wrote, “These last few weeks have riveted the country’s attention on police brutality. The murder of George Floyd was an atrocity, and unfortunately, it’s not the first one. As we have so often in our history, it’s time for America to respond with appropriate and reasonable reform. It’s not time to lose our heads, however.”

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He also said, “Let’s say it plainly. Black people are of equal moral value as white people. It’s Biblical; it’s American. And to treat people differently based on their race is morally and legally repugnant. To injure or kill them for the same reason goes against everything we stand for.”

Byrne argues that it is mostly a local issue and singles out only rouge cops, but it’s a starting point for dialogue.

Gov. Kay Ivey, in a June 1 statement said, “Like so many others throughout the country and around the world, I, too, was shocked and angered by the tragic actions that led to the senseless death of George Floyd last week in Minneapolis,” Ivey said. “It is a death that should have never happened, and it is a tragedy for which that too many people, especially African Americans, are all too familiar.”

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While Ivey condemned violent protests, she recalled that Alabama citizens have a rich history of using “peaceful protests to lead the country – and the world – to positive change.”

While peaceful protest did, in fact, over time bring about change, it would require willful ignorance to forget Alabama’s Bloody Sunday where civil protesters were beaten by law enforcement or the Birmingham Campaign where Bull Connor’s police and fire department clubbed, fire hosed and sicced attack dogs on the activists.

Alabama’s peaceful protests were marked repeatedly by brutal acts against black citizens who were only asking for the promises made at the nation’s founding.

The state’s history of racism is legend, and even the State’s 1901 Constitution was and still is used as a segregationist weapon to oppress blacks Alabamians.

In a campaign to drum up voter support for the 1901 Constitution, an advertisement read, “White Supremacy! Honest Elections! and the New Constitution! One and Inseparable!”

So, where is the state’s white Republican supermajority? Certainly they all don’t believe the novel coronavirus is a hoax to ruin the economy and defeat President Donald Trump.

How many must die before the human cost demands they stop lying?

Surely not all of them think protesters are thugs and anarchists.

How many more years must black citizens face injustice before they say “enough?”

There comes a time when a leader must stand for those who are being wronged and those who are sick and dying.

When will the state’s elected leaders stand for more than the next election?

Perhaps it’s time to turn away from Montgomery and to the big city mayors as an example of how to get things accomplished. The big five city mayors have done remarkable work guiding their cities during the COVID-19 outbreak.

And except for Huntsville, these five mayors — three Democrats and two Republicans — have managed to keep Black Lives Matter protests mostly peaceful.

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin has faced the most challenges and has shown courageous and wise leadership. Likewise, Montgomery’s Steven Reed, Tuscaloosa’s Walt Maddox, and Mobile’s Sandy Stimpson have displayed calm, decisive guidance through both the COVID-19 panic and the protest. Only Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle has stumbled, allowing law-enforcement to teargas and fire rubber bullets at the mostly peaceful protesters. In all other respects, he has done well, but he should renounce the police actions that took place in his city.

In a state where leaders often cite scripture, it is perhaps time to remember Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:8 where he said, “Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?”

It’s not surprising, but it is disappointing that so many of the state’s leaders remain voiceless when a call to action is needed.

Where is the leader who says, “The pandemic is at its worst right now. Stay home when you can, wear a mask when you go out, avoid large gatherings, and care for your neighbor.”

Where is the one who stands up and says that black citizens are being repressed, underrepresented and abused?

Who dares say “Black Lives Matter” without a caveat.

Our state once again is being tried and failing is always an option, but let’s pray we don’t fail again.

People are jobless, sick and dying, and our black citizens are being mistreated in so many ways.

If, as Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” let it bend now in our state’s time of need.

And let leaders stand up for justice for all.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Echoes of George Wallace heard as tear gas and rubber bullets fly in Huntsville

Bill Britt

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A small group of mostly peaceful protesters were shot with rubber bullets and tear-gassed by Huntsville Police and Madison County sheriff’s deputies after an NAACP rally last Wednesday.

The city’s mayor, police chief and the state’s attorney general want the public to believe that anarchists and outsiders provoked law-enforcement to use paramilitary tactics to disperse protesters on the courthouse square.

A video obtained by APR shows peaceful protesters being sprayed, gassed and shot with rubber bullets, as law-enforcement in black-clad riot gear pushed them from the city center.

After the police began their assault, some protesters did hurl insults and a few firecrackers at the approaching officers.

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, police chief Mark McMurray and attorney general Steve Marshall would later assert, without proof, that it was the presence of outside anarchists that led to a violent show of force by law enforcement.

It is a bizarre irony that those protesting police violence against black citizens were met with more police violence.

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But what took place in the supposedly progressive Madison County is just a continuation of the type of repressive brutality that has plagued the South for generations.

And the reasons given for the police action is older than “Dixie” and as false as the myth of “The Lost Cause.”

McMurray claimed in a press conference that sheriff’s deputies and police officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters because anarchists had infiltrated their ranks.

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“It’s an unauthorized protest against the government. That’s what it is. That’s what anarchists do. This was not NAACP. This was a separate splinter group that took advantage of a peaceful protest and hijacked it to cause anarchy against our government. Their way is to cause damage, set fires, loot, pillage.”

The idea of professionally trained anarchists whipping up crowds during protest marches is the latest justification for deploying military-style aggression against U.S. citizens.

Battle, in a statement the next day, said he supported law enforcement’s tactics and that outsiders were to blame for the police action.

“What occurred after the NAACP event was disheartening. A second event occurred, structured by people who were not part of our community,” Battle said.

While Battle didn’t use the word anarchists to describe the protesters, he accused “people who were not part of our community” for inciting police violence.

Marshall agreed with McMurray and Battle’s assessment that outsiders and anarchists were the reason law-enforcement fired on protesters. In a press statement, he said he was “satisfied” that the officers had acted appropriately.

According to McMurray, at least 24 people were arrested that evening, all of them from Madison County.

McMurray said that only Madison County residents were detained because professional anarchists know how to avoid arrest.

“The anarchists who came prepared and armed, they’re now going to another city to do the exact same thing,” the chief said. “They know how not to get arrested.”

But directly after the incident, Lt. Michael Johnson of HPD, said the reason for the police action was because they weren’t “going to roll the dice” and take a chance that the crowd could become hostile.

Johnson, speaking soon after the police action, seems to have not yet received the memo about anarchists.

But these false narratives used by Battle, McMurray and Marshall are not new and can be seen in an April 1964, letter from Gov. George Wallace.

“[W]e have never had a problem in the South except in a few very isolated instances and these have been the result of outside agitators,” Wallace wrote to a Ms. Martin. 

“White and colored have lived together in the South for generations in peace and equanimity,” Wallace continued. “They each prefer their own pattern of society, their own churches and their own schools—which history and experience have proven are best for both races. (As stated before, outside agitators have created any major friction occurring between the races.)”

Wallace also claims that the news media and propagandists are the real problems and not segregationist policies.

“Contrary to reports of many of the national news media and the propaganda distributed by various organizations, our efforts here in the South are not against the Negro citizen. We fight for the betterment of all citizens in our State.”

He further claims to have done more for black citizens than anyone in the history of the State.

“I personally have done more for the Negroes of the State of Alabama than any other individual.”

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because even today, politicians hope the public is ignorant or so moved by calls for law and order as to miss the point of the protests.

The idea of a tranquil and even docile black population whipped into a frenzy by anarchists and outsiders is as repugnant today as Wallace’s.

Battle, McMurray, and Marshall’s coded racism is as repulsive today as Wallace’s was then.

The false notion that anarchists and outsiders are the reason for aggressive police actions should be condemned.

There should be an independent panel commissioned to investigate the Huntsville police and Madison County Sheriff’s office.

The specter of George Wallace now hangs over Huntsville’s Courthouse Square, and only the bright light of justice can remove it.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | With liberty and justice for all

Bill Britt

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Photo: Rosa Pineda

As peaceful protests over the last week have been marred by violence and looting, the nation should be asking what kind of country we are and what we are to become?

Are we to be the shining city on a hill or a lord of the flies kingdom of warring factions?

Most of the protesters who have taken to the streets across the nation are only asking for those things promised in The Declaration of Independence and quoted in the nation’s Pledge of Allegiance.

They want the promise of “all men are created equal,” with “liberty and justice for all,” to be fulfilled.

Amidst the chaos, we hear calls for “law and order” and chants of “No justice, no peace.”

A nation can have law and order without justice, but when justice is denied or meted out unequally, people will only remain silent or peaceful for so long.

Law, justice, and peace should flow from the same fountain but rarely ever do in equal measure.

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi before him, showed the world the power of nonviolent resistance. From the Salt March, which took place from March to April 1930, in India, to the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965, a small band of individuals has shown that peaceful protests can overcome even institutional wrongs.

But laws passed in the 1960s, while changing what was legal, didn’t answer inequities or alter everyone’s hearts and minds.

Even today, the dog whistles of racism and bullhorns of hate compete against calls for change.

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Only when bigotry is shown in bright relief against the suffering of a nation’s citizens, do the powerful lose their stranglehold.

The murder of George Floyd is further evidence of a long-festering problem, and the ensuing rage is simply the manifestation of years of systematic mistreatment of black citizens. The laws may have changed in the 1960s, but the mindset of those who fought against that progress has been reborn.

As a nation, we cannot stand with a Bible in one hand and a club in the other and claim equal protection under the law.

Perhaps opening the Scriptures and letting the voice of Jesus speak, rather than holding his words as a prop, would be a good first step. Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Are these not the values we should hold dear?

I do not condone violence or property destruction, but I do understand the grievances that lead to both. We, as a state, and nation, can’t address the one without offering to answer the other.

President Trump’s failed attorney general Jeff Sessions has appointed himself as the spokesman for law and order. In a recent press release, Sessions said, “All over the country we have seen the results of ‘politically correct’ and completely ineffective leadership.”

Sessions blames, “Antifa, far-left radicals, and criminal thugs,” and many agree with him.

During George Wallace’s political rally at Madison Square Garden in 1968, he blamed anarchists, activists, militants, revolutionaries and communists for the nation’s ills.

Wallace also said, “The Supreme Court of our country has hand-cuffed the police, and tonight if you walk out of this building and are knocked in the head, the person who knocks you in the head is out of jail before you get in the hospital, and on Monday morning, they’ll try a policeman about it.”

Today, Wallace, like Sessions, would say that political correctness was the problem, not a culture that targets certain citizens.

Wallace expressed his disdain for demonstrators who tried to block President Lyndon B. Johnson’s limousine saying, “I tell you when November comes, the first time they lie down in front of my limousine, it’ll be the last one they ever lay down in front of; their day is over.”

On Facebook, some Alabamians have suggested protesters be shot in the head if they resist arrest. And so it goes that the ugliness of human nature stands ready to repeat the sins of the past over and over again.

In an Op-Ed, Alabama State University President Quinton T. Ross, Jr., invoked the past in a very different way.

“Our nonviolent stand proved successful in the past, and I believe it could be the catalyst for real and impactful change. Let peace be at the core of all of our actions,” wrote Ross.

“While it seems as though remaining calm in the midst of a racist storm is a signal to be disrespected, disregarded and endangered, remember the lives that were lost to get us to this day. Remember the examples of those who were brutally beaten and rose up from that brutality to walk the halls of Congress, to become mayors, governors, state legislators and community leaders.”

Our nation was born out of public defiance in the face of political oppression. Our nation was to be a port for those seeking hope and justice in a world of tyrants.

President Ronald Reagan called the United States “the shining city upon a hill.”

“In my mind, it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace,” said Reagan in his 1989 Farewell Address to the Nation. He further said he saw the nation as, “A city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

Reagan saw a nation where everyone was allowed to live with peace and prosperity. A place where all were equal, deserved freedom and justice. Is that not what we all want, including the protesters?

America has always been a land of promise, and many times, promises are not kept.

But today, our nation may very well be at a turning point.

Will the moral imperative of fairness break over the dam’s edge, or will some just add more sandbags to the top?

Will we decide liberty and justice for all are more than words we repeat by rote, and that everyone deserves the promise of America?

That is the question before us, and now what we choose will show who we are and what we will become.

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