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On Covington Catholic

| Tuesday, January 22, 2019

We all know who George Wallace is. The four-term governor of Alabama is one of the most infamous figures in 20th-century American politics. He is the face of the anti-civil rights movement, shouting in his inaugural address “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” In June of 1963, he organized the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door. The governor blocked the doors of the University of Alabama, standing in the way of the university’s first four black students attempting to make their way to class. President Kennedy then federalized the Alabama National Guard, who forcibly removed Wallace from the door. At the time, Wallace was venerated by some as a national hero. Today, he looks like a bigoted fool.

This weekend, a number of demonstrations occurred in Washington, including the March for Life, a yearly rally organized by anti-abortion activists. A number of students from Covington Catholic — a high school in Covington, Kentucky — attended the march. On Jan. 19, video surfaced of a confrontation between these students and members of the Indigenous People’s March.

The video shows Nathan Phillips, an elder with the Omaha tribe and Vietnam veteran, beating a drum as he faces a white teenaged boy in a “Make America Great Again” hat. The boy stands with a smug look on his face, though he fails to keep up eye contact with Phillips. Other students around the two mock Native traditions with screams and “tomahawk chops.” Though not on video, Phillips states the students shouted “Build the wall” to him and other Natives present. Any wall, of course, would be ineffective against the people that have lived here for thousands of years — but I guess that fact was lost on them.

The parallels between the students’ actions and Wallace’s Stand in the Schoolhouse Door are uncanny. A white man blocks the path of a person of color, quite literally stands in the way of his progress. The surrounding students harass the minority persons, reminding them — whether through direct action or dirty looks — that they are unwelcome. The video demonstrates that the same tactics used by white mobs in the 1960s are just as effective and unnerving today. It demonstrates that the hate, the stupidity that fueled Wallace and those like him is alive and well in America nearly sixty years later.

When one looks at Covington Catholic’s profile, the attitudes of its students are less surprising. The school is located in a wealthy suburb of Cincinnati. Tuition is nearly $10,000 a year. Before the school removed its faculty directory from its website, Twitter users uncovered that the entire 80-person faculty is white. Jake Walter, a former basketball player at the school, has been accused of rape multiple times and was registered as a juvenile sex offender in 2018. Walter’s victims were taken to the hospital and were identified as having bruises and multiple lacerations. He “dismissed the victim by laughing at her and telling her that she would be fine.” Walter was still allowed to walk in the school’s graduation ceremony.

It’s obvious how this sort of conduct is normalized at a school like Covington. Almost everyone looks the same. Almost everyone dresses the same, talks the same, thinks the same. The “other” is easily demonized. Anyone who does not appear exactly the same as the student body is an outsider, or a threat. It is the duty of the school, then, to educate its students on just how different the real world is from their comfortable corridors. It is their job to help them understand the plight of some people in America, to make them see diversity is a strength, that by interacting with other cultures we gain a clearer understanding of ourselves and of humanity. In this regard, Covington Catholic has failed.

It is perhaps a little known fact that Governor Wallace repented of his role in the fight against civil rights. He was shot in 1972, confined to a wheelchair and immense pain for the rest of his life. When he later visited a Baptist church in Montgomery, he spoke to the congregation. “I have learned what suffering means,” he said. “In a way that was impossible, I think I can understand something of the pain black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain, and I can only ask forgiveness.”  

I don’t know that Wallace deserved forgiveness. I don’t know that the students of Covington do, either. But in seeking forgiveness, Wallace demonstrated that we are not confined to the sins of our past. The students at Covington can be better. We can be better. We’re all capable of change. And we all have to remember that.

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