In 1961, I participated in what one newspaper in Richmond, Virginia, called “one of the most ambitious experiments in race-mixing the South had seen.” With the nation in turmoil, 25 other black students and I helped integrate an all-white junior high school.
Outside the school, we faced angry crowds determined to prevent us from getting a quality education in peace. Inside, we were constantly afraid of being confronted by the white toughs who took special joy in threatening us black kids.
We were just 12-years-old at the time, and we felt outnumbered, intimidated and overwhelmed.
I’ll never forget the day one of them made good on his threats. I was descending a large stairway when he pushed me from behind hard. I fell down the stone stairs, landing at the bottom with my shins and back badly bruised. Not done, the bully kicked my books all over the hall as his friends heckled and laughed at me.
And that’s when an amazing thing happened.
One of the white girls in the crowd stepped forward and began helping me gather my books. She continued even as her friends turned on her and called her horrible names. Unfazed, she walked me down the hall to the nurse’s office.
She didn’t say much, but she said enough to make it clear the boy who pushed me didn’t speak or act for her and many others like her.
I’ve thought of that girl a lot this summer. Because her courage and kindness are so at odds with what’s happened to Kirstjen Nielsen, Mitch McConnell and Brett Kavanaugh.
Nielsen is secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. As such, she has been directly involved in one of the hottest issues of the day: illegal immigration.
On June 20, Nielsen was quietly eating dinner at a D.C. restaurant when members of the Democratic Socialists of America approached her table and started chanting and heckling her.
“Fascist pig!” one called her. “You’re a villain!” another yelled.
And then they ran her out of the restaurant.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., found himself in a similar situation on several occasions. In addition to the name-calling and insults, he received an ominous threat: “We know where you live!” one protester bellowed.
Sadly, this behavior is being encouraged by some of our leaders.
For example, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., told agitators: “If you see anybody from that (Trump) Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”
Now, being able to learn in peace and being able to eat or shop in peace are obviously different things. But there are unsettling similarities, too.
Angry crowds that heckle and threaten are not trying to change hearts and win minds — they’re trying to impose their will through intimidation. Worse, they can easily become violent.
It shouldn’t, and doesn’t have to, be this way. When I was attacked in that school stairwell, a brave girl stepped forward. Her quiet act of courage revealed her good heart — and the power of civility. We need much, much more of that today.
July 12 marked the second annual “National Day of Civility,” but there was precious little of it to be found in Washington that day. As Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was introducing himself to senators, his opponents hurled incredibly insulting rhetoric at him.
Judge Kavanaugh is widely known for his intelligence, fairness, impartiality, and faithfulness to the Constitution. But that didn’t stop radicals from smearing him as “intellectually and morally bankrupt.”
They were joined by former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who said Kavanaugh’s joining the court “will threaten the lives of millions of Americans.” Hollywood types weighed in, too, warning that Kavanaugh’s confirmation would herald “the first American dictatorship.”
And these are just a few of the many uncivil things said about this very civil jurist.
My friend Donna Brazile once said, “A government of, by, and for the people requires that people talk to people, that we can agree to disagree but do so in civility.”
Donna and I disagree about many approaches to public policy. But we strongly agree about being able to do so in a calm, respectful, and civil manner.
With the nation once again in turmoil, more Americans in public and in private life alike need to choose civility. Instead of ugly rancor, we should show respect. Instead of closed minds, we should have open hearts. And when called on to do so, we need to demonstrate our own quiet courage.
It worked in a Richmond stairway. Isn’t it time we try it as a nation?
Kay Coles James is president of The Heritage Foundation. James formerly served as director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and as Virginia’s secretary of health and human resources. She is also the founder and president of The Gloucester Institute.
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A version of this article previously appeared on The Daily Signal website under the headline, “Why A Nation in Turmoil Must Choose Civility.”
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