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County Executive Steuart Pittman speaks to those gathered in Annapolis for the unveiling of a historical marker commemorating the five African Americans who were lynched in Anne Arundel County more than a century ago.
County Executive Steuart Pittman speaks to those gathered in Annapolis for the unveiling of a historical marker commemorating the five African Americans who were lynched in Anne Arundel County more than a century ago. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

The theme of this year’s conference of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, taking place Saturday morning at Morgan State University, is “the journey from truth to reconciliation.” I was thinking about the connection between those ideals during a journey of my own Wednesday afternoon, on the No. 51 bus up Charles Street, when a man in a topcoat, fedora and sunglasses asked a question about the president of the United States: “What’s going to happen to Trump?”

I said he’s probably going to be impeached by the House of Representatives, then acquitted by the Senate because Senate Republicans appear to have taken a blood oath to keep him in office, no matter what he does.

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“It’s not Trump I’m worried about,” the man said. “It’s the 64 million people who voted for him.”

It was actually 62.9 million who went for Trump in 2016, and national polls indicate that his base is still behind him. In their president, those millions of Americans apparently prefer juvenile tweets to dignified remarks, lies to truth, ignorance to informed opinion and, when it comes to immigrants and refugees, cruelty to generosity.

The man in the shades got off at 25th Street, having made a piercing point: Even if Trump were forced from office, even if he fails at re-election, the record shows that 62,984,828 Americans, about 46% of the 2016 electorate, voted for the guy. Calling it an aberration is wishful thinking. Most of the MAGA crowd would probably vote for him, or someone just as nasty and mendacious, tomorrow.

In a parking lot in a rural part of Maryland last week, I saw a pickup truck with a National Rifle Association decal and an oval sticker: “Trump 2020/Make Liberals Cry Again.”

For millions of white Americans who hated the Obama presidency, who despise talk of gun regulation, who resent identity politics and the demographic changes taking place across the country, that’s what elections now seem to represent: an opportunity to “own the libs.” This is visceral stuff that explains why, in the time of Trump, things are so upside down. People (farmers, coal miners, people with either limited health insurance or none at all) vote against their own best interests. Faith-inspired principles and traditional conservative ideals — honesty, family values, fiscal prudence, sober realism toward Russia — seem unimportant to these Republicans.

Such is the path they have chosen.

Such is the state of the country. We have a thick and thorny divide along racial, ethnic, political and geographic lines. In the 1960s, we had fierce opposition to the Vietnam War and a powerful civil rights movement against historic racism, and so divisions were understandable. Fifty years later, it’s hard to fathom why we are so divided, except that divisions fire up passions. Trump figured that out and exploited it. That’s why he constantly feeds his base the rhetoric of us-against-libs and Dems-against-me. At one point, he callously called the House impeachment inquiry a “lynching.”

Which gets me to truth and reconciliation, and Saturday’s conference of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project at Morgan. This non-profit organization started to take shape just as Donald Trump rose politically, as the country seemed to be regressing in its attitudes toward racial equality and ethnic diversity, and as hate crimes were increasing.

Truth and reconciliation in Trump time? Though not its intent, the lynching project seemed almost like a counter movement.

Given the horrific history it set out to address, you might have wondered if people in Maryland, or in any of the states that had racial murders decades ago, would respond. There were tasks the Maryland project wanted volunteers to carry out: collecting soil from the more than 40 places where lynchings occurred and placing memorial markers on those haunted grounds.

Preliminary results are impressive: Marylanders, black and white, have embraced the project.

“I’m stunned at how this thing has taken off,” says Will Schwarz, a long-time television and video producer who established the project and serves as its president. (Schwarz and I worked together in the 1980s and 1990s.) “When we had our first conference last year, we weren’t working with any local groups at all. Our mailing list had about 40 names on it. Today, we’re working with groups in 14 Maryland counties and we have about 1,000 people on the mailing list. Clearly it’s struck a chord.”

Hundreds of Marylanders have turned out for a series of meetings and ceremonies. Soil collections have taken place at seven lynching sites, most recently in Leonardtown and Poolesville, and organizers dedicated a historical marker, the first in the state, in Annapolis in September. The General Assembly made Maryland the first state to create a lynching truth-and-reconciliation commission.

“People are beginning to understand how racial terror and lynching was used to enforce white supremacy and how it’s still present in our lives,” Schwarz says. “We can’t move forward until we acknowledge what happened and try to understand how it continues to affect us.”

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So, yes, despite Trumpism — or maybe because of it — a lot of Americans, in Maryland and other states, yearn for truth and reconciliation.

Says Schwarz: “The fact that so many people are turning out for these events, that they are hungry to learn what happened and are angry that these murders have been ignored for so long, shows that they genuinely want to figure this out, want us all to be better Americans and better humans.”

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