What happens to America when optimism dies?

When I interviewed Majority Whip James Clyburn in 2014 about his memoir “Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black,” the South Carolina Democrat was confident in America’s ability to find its way, no matter how extreme the political swings might appear at any given time.

“The country from its inception is like the pendulum on a clock,” the congressman told me. “It goes back and forward. It tops out to the right and starts back to the left — it tops out to the left and starts back to the right.” And remember, he said, it “spends twice as much time in the center.”

I have always appreciated Clyburn’s wisdom, his passion and his commitment to his constituents. But most of all, I have admired the optimism of this child of the South, who grew up hemmed in by Jim Crow’s separate and unequal grip, yet who believed in the innate goodness of America and its people. Clyburn put his own life on the line to drag the country — kicking and screaming — into a more just future.

He was convinced, I believe, that no matter how off balance America might become, the country would eventually right itself.

A lot has changed since that afternoon, when he sat at a long table, signing books and chatting in the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, N.C., right beside his beloved wife. Emily Clyburn, a passionate civil rights activist, died in 2019, though Clyburn often references her wise words.

That optimism, however, has lost its glow.

Clyburn’s worries drove our conversation in July 2021, the second of two times he was a guest on my CQ Roll Call “Equal Time” podcast. The topic was voting rights, and Clyburn had opinions about the Senate procedure that would eventually stall legislation to reform those rights and restore provisions invalidated by a Supreme Court decision in 2013.

“When it comes to the constitutional issues like voting, guaranteed to Blacks by the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution, that should not be filibustered,” he said. And about restrictive laws being passed in states? “I want you to call it what it is. Use the word: nullification. It is voter nullification.”

“This isn’t about just voting; this is about whether or not we will have a democracy or an autocracy.”

With those remarks in the back of my mind, it was still startling to hear Clyburn last week on MSNBC, talking about his GOP House colleagues, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, and their waffling about complying with subpoenas from the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack.

When asked if the government and Capitol Hill could “be fixed,” Clyburn, known for his philosophical “this too shall pass” mantra, instead replied, “I don’t know.” He talked about threats to undermine democracy and said the country is “teetering on the edge.”

And that was before the shooting in Buffalo that claimed the lives of 10 beautiful Americans doing something as routine as Saturday supermarket shopping. African Americans were targeted by an 18-year-old who wore his “white supremacist” label like a badge of honor in a heavily plagiarized racist screed, a man whose stated goal was to “kill as many blacks as possible.”

Is it any wonder Clyburn’s optimism has been waning in these times?

What’s the state of our rights? Stay tuned

The concept of states’ rights has never been pure.

The Confederates who eventually went to war over the right of their states to own men, women and children ditched their reasoning — that what they did was none of the federal government’s business — when the enslaved escaped to states willing to grant these brave human beings their freedom.

Then, it was time for Southern politicians to demand revisions and ever harsher penalties added to existing Fugitive Slave laws that punished those who escaped and anyone who aided them, including offering bounties that ensnared even freed Black citizens (“12 Years a Slave,” true story).

Hypocrisy has always been a feature, not a bug in the American way, especially for those deemed not worthy, not possessing “rights which the white man was bound to respect,” as Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote in the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford opinion in 1857.

You don’t have to reach back to pre-Civil War days for examples that prove the philosophy of states’ rights can be quite malleable when it interferes with a desired outcome.

A current proposal favored by a Missouri legislator, aimed at a clinic in neighboring Illinois, seems cut from the same cloth. It would allow private citizens to sue anyone who helps a Missouri resident obtain an abortion, including the out-of-state doctor or the person who connected patient to clinic.

Such laws, if approved in Missouri and elsewhere, while unconstitutional on their face and sure to be subject to a slew of lawsuits, could nonetheless serve as chilling warnings for anyone tempted to help a desperate client, friend or family member.

When did admitting mistakes become weakness for Republicans?

In 2002, Trent Lott of Mississippi tried, awkwardly, to make amends.

What did the then-Senate majority leader do to merit penance? Waxing poetic and perhaps feeling a bit nostalgic, Lott gave a speech honoring the 100th birthday of fellow Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, the onetime Dixiecrat who once broke off from the Democratic Party with a group of the like-minded to form the States’ Rights Democratic Party, built on segregation and steeped in white supremacy.

“I want to say this about my state,” said Lott, harking back to Thurmond’s 1948 folly. “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”

First, Lott backtracked by saying he did not mean what he clearly said, calling the celebration “lighthearted.” Next, the apology, “to anyone who was offended.”  “A poor choice of words conveyed to some that I embraced the discarded policies of the past,” he said in a statement. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

He resigned as majority leader after receiving criticism mostly from Democrats but also from some Republicans, worried they might lose support of Black conservative voters for whom whistling Dixie was a step too far.

I’m not sure if Lott’s motive was genuine moral growth or reading the room. But at the very least, it acknowledged that longing for the bad old days was not a good thing.

For reasons exemplary or political or both, anything that name-checked the divisive and ugly politics of Dixiecrat days of glory was seen as a drag for a politician and his or her party. This was true even when the words honored Thurmond, a longtime senator, one whose hypocrisy moved front and center when his Black daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, in 2003 claimed her truth and her birthright.

Was 2002 really that long ago? In political years, apparently, yes.

But what will the ‘optics’ be?

After the votes are counted, probably this week, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson will almost certainly be a Supreme Court justice. But members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who wanted to use her confirmation hearings for everything but the thing they were designed for are also walking away satisfied.

Republican senators like Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Ted Cruz of Texas used their time to either talk down to Jackson or talk past her to make political points.

During the hearings, questions that criticized her sentencing philosophy as well as “empathy” were tailor-made for the African American Supreme Court candidate and a slew of negative ads to accuse her and every Democrat of being soft on crime in general and pornographers in particular.

In that, they were merely following the playbook that has become routine and is unfortunate for any American who wants to get anything done, especially, in this instance, for advocates of criminal justice reform. That Jackson had the support of major law enforcement groups and could boast of relatives with more time on the front lines of fighting crime than all those senators combined were facts to be ignored by those looking to set a narrative. That her sentencing record resembled that of Republican judges favored by the disagreeing and disagreeable senators were details to be brushed aside. Cotton, in fact, has ramped up his attacks, saying, to the disgust of the Anti-Defamation League, that she would represent “Nazis.”

After listening to and watching the show along with the rest of us, three Republican senators have explained their reasoning for backing the eminently qualified jurist while decrying the partisan grandstanding that has accompanied modern Supreme Court justice hearings. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah, who actually voted against her last time around, had met with Jackson. They apparently have seen her as she truly is, not the ridiculous caricature constructed by her interrogators.

What did that get the three? The label of “pro-pedophile” from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. Along with that slander, she also tweeted the proof was, “They just voted for #KBJ,” when the vote had not yet happened. But when has being wrong on fact or intention ever stopped the Georgia Republican?

It all fits in with the spectacle of Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee continuing their snarling and baseless accusations against Jackson this past Monday — the April 4 anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The symbolism speaks for itself and points to a larger problem.

Say goodbye to reality-based reasoned discussion, with give-and-take from every side, and hello to filtering every issue through fear, feelings and optics.

Get used to terms such as “woke,” “socialism,” “critical race theory” and now “pedophile” in outraged statements and already surfacing alarmist election ads.

Can we just leave God out of it?

God must be sick of the lot of us.

That was my first thought on reading the text message exchanges between Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.

“This is a fight of good versus evil,” Meadows reportedly wrote to Thomas. “Evil always looks like the victor until the King of Kings triumphs. Do not grow weary in well doing. The fight continues. I have staked my career on it. Well at least my time in DC on it.”

Thomas replied: “Thank you!! Needed that! This plus a conversation with my best friend just now … I will try to keep holding on. America is worth it!”

It is the language of Armageddon.

So many exclamation points. And who the best friend is, only God and Ginni know, though many are making an educated guess.

Especially during the Easter season, quoting any reference to the “King of Kings” in the context of a grubby political scheme seems more heresy than prophecy. However, those toxic messages confirm that when you believe God is on your side, nothing is off limits.

And that’s the problem, one that could shatter American democracy.

Shining a light on truth, at any cost

Brent Renaud was an award-winning journalist, a documentary filmmaker and photographer, whose work took him around the country and the world, where he covered an earthquake in Haiti, cartel violence in Mexico and, in a Vice News series titled “Last Chance High,” a therapeutic school in Chicago. He won a prestigious Peabody Award for that last project in 2015. And, this past weekend, while chronicling the experiences of refugees and migrants, Renaud was shot and killed in Irpin, Ukraine.

Though I never met Renaud, I admired his work, and I appreciated an experience we both shared, a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, a magical year of learning and sharing with top journalists from around the world. During his Nieman year, Renaud “studied the effects of trauma and mental and emotional illness on rates of poverty and violence in America,” according to a story on the Nieman website.

Renaud’s Nieman classmate, visual journalist Juan Arredondo, who was on assignment with him, was wounded in the attack.

“This kind of attack is totally unacceptable and is a violation of international law,” Carlos Martínez de la Serna, program director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in response to the violent attacks.

Yesterday’s march, with lessons for today

March 7, 1965, is a day to remember.

That was never a problem for 90-year-old Ora Bell Shannon of Selma, Ala., then a young mother who ran with her children from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, or for Betty Boynton, who could see the tear gas rising and baton-wielding state troopers beating peaceful marchers.

Civil rights activists — among them Amelia Boynton, Betty Boynton’s mother-in-law, and a young John Lewis — put their bodies on the line to create the headlines and the international shock that forced action from Washington. In truth, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 simply put teeth into the enforcement of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, ignored by state and local governments intent on blocking African Americans from the ballot box.

Back then, it was about the right to vote, and in 2022, it is still about the right to vote, reinforced by the hard-won Voting Rights Act of 1965 but increasingly under attack by state laws placing obstacles in the way of those least able to overcome them.

As many, including Vice President Kamala Harris, traveled to Selma this past Sunday to commemorate what has become known as “Bloody Sunday,” the landscape has changed in a country where many have lost the ability to be shocked or to find common cause with citizens different from themselves.

 It is a world where, as Senate Democrats hold their annual issues conference at Howard University in Washington, elevating the excellence of that institution, students seeking an education at historically Black colleges and universities face bomb threats.

It’s easy to forget that in the not-that-distant past, the annual ceremony in Selma, including a symbolic march across the bridge named for a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader, had been bipartisan. In 2015, a chastened Kevin McCarthy, then House majority leader, attended the 50th anniversary of the historic march in Selma after initial reports that no GOP congressional leaders would be there.

A balancing act that’s worth it

In a brief mention in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Joe Biden described his Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson as a “consensus builder” and touted her support from the Fraternal Order of Police, before moving on to other topics.

That was understandable in a time of war and division, overseas and closer to home. But that doesn’t mean that Jackson’s spot is guaranteed. As she makes the rounds this week, visiting with senators from both parties, it’s a reminder of the tightrope she must walk, the challenges she must overcome even as the rules in this high-stakes game keep changing.

As an African-American woman who has achieved much, she’s proved she is up to the task.

Understandably, many Black women in America celebrated when Biden fulfilled his campaign promise and nominated Judge Jackson to the Supreme Court. She would be the first Black woman on the nation’s highest court, though there have been many who were deserving, one of the most obvious being the first Black woman appointed to the federal bench, Constance Baker Motley, whose life and work are chronicled in the new book “Civil Rights Queen.”

Black women formed a strong part of the coalition that put Biden in the Oval Office and have been stalwart citizens throughout American history, on the forefront of human rights, civil rights and voting activism through icons such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Height and Shirley Chisholm and so many others who never received the recognition they deserved.

I have a hunch that if former President Barack Obama had nominated Jackson, who reportedly was on his short list, instead of Merrick B. Garland to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the court, her almost-certain dis by Senate Republicans, led by then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, would have triggered a groundswell that would have carried Hillary Clinton into the White House.

Jackson, then and now, would have to be prepared for whatever might come her way during confirmation hearings, set to start March 21 before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

She’s already been subjected to a grilling from Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn. During her hearing last year for her spot on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Cornyn asked: “What role does race play, Judge Jackson, in the kind of judge you have been and the kind of judge you will be?”

Seeing double: Part exasperation, part inspiration

I lead a double life. That’s not as sinister as it sounds.

I cover the news of the day and write opinion columns on the intersection of politics, culture and race. And, if you’ve been paying attention, you know that it’s rough out there.

In my other, not-so-secret life, I spend time with thought leaders from around the country and the globe, leading a workshop called “Write to Change the World.” Through our hours together, I have the privilege of watching people of all ages, races, faiths and nationalities do just that, on issues from health equity to climate change to racial justice.

That’s inspiring!

But there is bound to be a disconnect between the real and the aspirational, between the world as it is and the world as anyone anxious to see progress would like it to be.

It couldn’t happen here, unless it already is

Censoring what you say and do? Trembling in fear that you are being surveilled, with your words and actions reported to “the state”? Looking over your shoulder in case a government-sponsored militia decides to swoop into your precinct as you attempt to cast a ballot, just to guarantee you’re not trying anything “funny”?

If that sounds exactly like the scary scenarios U.S. Olympic athletes were warned not to comment on as they ventured into unfriendly Chinese territory, you would be right.

Unfortunately, though, America’s best can expect some of the same conditions when they return to the good, old USA, no translation needed.

It is true that China, with its control of social media and intrusion into the lives of its citizens, presented a dilemma for countries, including the United States, that wanted to compete on a world stage and also appear concerned about human rights abuses. You can’t expect athletes who’ve maneuvered down icy slopes all their lives to bear the brunt of political maneuvering, so no judgment is coming their way.

But you can chide an America that would rightly stand firm calling out the sins of other countries, while ignoring the changes that are transforming what touts itself as a model into something unrecognizable to those for whom justice is the goal.

In doing so, the country is following the examples of the restrictive societies our leaders once condemned and disrespecting the lives and work of brave citizens who believed in the ideals the country can’t help bragging about.