I recently walked by Charles Sumner Post today as dusk settled in over town. It was closed of course, but access was not why I was there. I had been thinking about a photograph, now iconic, taken in the National Statuary Hall of the US Capitol during the fatal insurrection by Trump supporters on Thursday. The image has a direct thread to Chestertown.
The photograph by Reuters photographer Mike Theiler shows a man waving a Confederate battle flag through the halls of the United State Capitol where portraits of past lawmakers pose regally from their frames. It is doubtful the insurrectionist knew the identities of the two portraits captured with him during that fleeting moment.
Aside from the dominance of the Confederate flag, one’s gaze shifts to the portrait in the background, a full-bodied fellow with mutton chops who looks to be gazing off to some imagined future.
It’s Charles Sumner, the US Senator from Massachusetts, leader of his state’s anti-slavery movement and fiery abolitionist in the Senate during the Civil War.
Sumner devoted his life to ending “Slave Power,” the influence southern slaveholders had on the federal government and he almost gave his life up for it when beaten almost fatally by South Carolina Democrat Preston Brooks after Sumner gave a five-hour speech on the floor condemning Kansas’ admission to the Union as a slave state. The senator did not mince words and leveled his criticism at Senator Stephen Douglas calling him a “noise-some, squat, and nameless animal . . . not a proper model for an American senator,” and an even more scathing rebuke of Andrew Butler, another ardent advocate of slavery. Preston Brooks was Butler’s cousin and sought retribution for Sumner’s personal attack on his family’s pro-slavery stance.
To the left of the criminal intruder waving the ultimate symbol of white supremacy, is another portrait, the South Carolina statesman, John Calhoun. Calhoun, a slave owner, equated human bondage as equity and a signifier of status among the South’s elite. He once wrote “The will of a majority is the will of a rabble. Progressive democracy is incompatible with liberty.”
And there it was: the trifecta of converging elements mixed into the bloody and explosive alchemy we saw in display during those few hours as the Capit0l lay fallen in the hands of marauders who ransacked the Capitol and the American psyche, a perfect summation of white supremacy and the moral imperative to end it.
It’s hard to say what a Venn Diagram of last Wednesday’s coup attempt against the Capitol would look like if you added every belief and grievance that clawed its way through the building that day. One would have to add the Proud Boys and other militia groups, Q anon cultists who believe that the government is run by blood drinking satanic pedophiles, CEOs, Republican officials, GOP donors, anti-maskers, evangelical Christians who blessed Trump with moral authority, ex-military, and Trump adherents in the grip of self-reinforcing denial that the 2020 election was a massive conspiracy, many of them capable of committing murder, and some who did, all spurred on by the President and his entourage of spokespeople fomenting summed up by Rudy Giuliani’s call to arms just hours before the onslaught: “Let’s have trial by combat.”
Amid the overlapping circles in the diagram, its center, where one usually finds the commonality within separateness, what would we find? I think we might discover a two layered center—the fervent Trump supporter rallying to the call of his false claims about the election, and the venom of white supremacy.
The day after the insurrection that cost the lives of Capitol police officer Brian Sicknick and four others, Ford Foundation President wrote “I have long believed that inequality is the greatest threat to justice—and, the corollary, that white supremacy is the greatest threat to democracy. But what has become clear during recent weeks—and all the more apparent yesterday—is that the converse is also true: Democracy is the greatest threat to white supremacy.
Yes. Consider the reenactment of the George Floyd death under a BLM banner at National Christian Church Wednesday morning; the disparity in the police response Wednesday to last August’s BLM protest; a noose dangling from a beam outside the Capitol building; a man wearing an Auschwitz t-shirt after breaking into Congress, the Confederate Stars and Bars fluttering next to Trump flags. Where else would a threatened white supremist strike but the heart of democracy, the halls of the Capitol.
Of course, many thousands of true believers in Trump’s delusion of a vast conspiracy to defraud the election made their way to DC not to commit violence but to uphold their right to protest. They feel disenfranchised, cancelled, with no one at the helm to address their grievances.
In one interview this weekend, a Black woman commented “maybe now you know how we feel.” We will never know that fully, but maybe we are in inch closer.
Reflecting on the photograph once again, I see less the racist with the flag or the bench-jawed Calhoun eternally counting his slaves, but more the gaze of Charles Sumner still imagining some future, perhaps prescient with the knowledge that racism would continue to wear many hats and its fever dream would long seep into the fabric of the nation and continue to manifest in attitudes, policies and systemic malignancies. He wouldn’t have been wrong.
As I walked away from the building on Queen St. bearing Charles Sumner’s name for its heritage as a post for Black veterans of the Civil War, I thought about something else he wrote: “I have fought a long battle with slavery; and I confess my solicitude when I see anything that looks like concession to it.
Jim Dissette is the editor of the Chestertown Spy. He acknowledges with thanks The Atlantic’s staff writer Clint Smith for calling attention to the image.