When a white woman riding in an Uber heard the news over the radio that Britain’s Prince Harry was engaged to a black woman, she shrieked, “He couldn’t find anyone white!” When the driver, a black woman who recounted the incident to me a few fares later, coolly looked at her, the woman stammered that she didn’t really mean anything — as if the words of her mouth had not betrayed the meditations of her heart.
That’s the same way I view President Donald Trump’s intentional put-down of Sen. Elizabeth Warren Monday by mocking her as “Pocahontas” as he ostensibly honored Native American veterans of World War II while standing in front of a photo of President Andrew Jackson, the slaveholder known as “Indian Killer” who was responsible for the forced removal of Native Americans from southeastern states to what is now Oklahoma. President Trump’s true feelings fall trippingly off his tongue and through his Twitter feed.
That brings me to Roy Moore, whose unscripted words offer insight into what he’s up to as he seeks Alabama’s contested seat in the U.S. Senate. His alleged sexual misbehavior has moved key Republicans and leading Alabama newspapers to disavow him. Yet he is the candidate of President Trump; of Steve Bannon, the president’s white nationalist Rasputin; and of a majority of Alabama’s white evangelicals for whom voting for any Democrat is a sacrilege.
At a religious gathering a couple of weeks ago, Mr. Moore played the martyr, quoting a passage of scripture in which Jesus offers a blessing to disciples who faced persecution for his sake. That would be Roy Moore, according to Roy Moore, who went on to pinpoint just when American society began its long downward spiral. After decrying the Supreme Court ruling forbidding Christian prayer in public schools, he said: “They started to create new rights in 1965, and today we’ve got a problem.”
I heard Mr. Moore loudly and clearly. He singled out the year when the Voting Rights Act became law, after blacks and their white allies did indeed become martyrs on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., and in other campaigns for the civil rights originally extended to blacks in post-Civil War amendments to the U.S. Constitution. They were “new rights” to the likes of Roy Moore only because states like his Alabama and my Georgia had ignored the Constitution for nearly a century. What happened in the 1960s — including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and even changes in media that followed the damning Kerner Commission report in 1968 — marked what seemed like America moving into its greatness.
The arc of history led to the election of President Barack Obama, a black man. We are now well into a post-Obama backlash and purging reminiscent of what followed Reconstruction, that decade after the Civil War when blacks made great strides in civil society, in politics, in business. The earlier backlash gave us Jim Crow laws, separate-but-equal and the Ku Klux Klan — a situation that the activism of the 1950s and 1960s began to reverse.
Mr. Moore wants a return to the 1950s or maybe even the 1850s, when, he might say, women, blacks, Native Americans and Mexicans knew their place. “Today we’ve got a problem” means women demanding freedom from unwanted sexual advances and the right to make reproductive decisions; Native Americans fighting against oil pipelines and other encroachments against their sovereignty; Mexicans and Haitians and others challenging misguided immigration policies; black people having the audacity to seek equity.
Those who support Roy Moore and his ilk fear that their time is running out, but they still have enough mischief in them to wreak havoc on our democracy. They are busily at work: Mr. Bannon and the white nationalist strategists he left behind in the White House, Jeff Sessions in the Justice Department, other cabinet members whose mission is to dismantle the agencies they head, deep-pocketed backers of anti-democratic conservative causes — and politicians who prey upon the religious-minded by practicing a situational Christianity that cherry picks their sacred texts.
Stopping them requires voting and a deep study of history. That will show that Mr. Moore’s rendering of the 1960s is off the mark — and that Meghan Markle, the biracial actress who is Prince Harry’s intended, would not be the first royal of African descent in the British family tree.
As the adage goes, “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.”
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.