America’s Character

Published: November 5, 2021

By Jim Lichtman
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Revisiting Jon Meacham’s book, The Soul of America, I was struck by a quote by historian and civil rights activist, W.E.B. Dubois.

Writing in Black Reconstruction in America, Dubois observes, “Back of the writing, yelling, cruel-eyed demons who break, destroy, maim and lynch and burn at the stake, is a knot, large or small, of normal human beings, and these human beings at heart are desperately afraid of something. Of what? Of many things, but usually of losing their jobs, being declassed, degraded, or actually disgraced; of losing their hopes, their savings, their plans for their children; of the actual pangs of hunger, of dirt, of crime.”

Written in 1935, Dubois could not have been more prescient as America struggles to find a way through our current knot of fear to “the better angels of our nature.”

The “better angels” passage from Lincoln’s first inaugural address has been quoted countless times when Americans have faced seemingly impossible adversities. And we’re facing them again. So many feel declassed, degraded, and disgraced that they’ve become darkly inspired by one man’s hateful rhetoric and attacked the symbol of American democracy.

How can we reach out to those who feel abandoned and betrayed?

In all the hate and violence that took place on January 6, one moment stood out. In a statement before the House select committee investigating the attack on the Capitol, Officer Michael Fanone described to lawmakers something unexpected.

“During the assault,” Fanone said, “I thought about using my firearm on my attackers, but I knew that if I did, I would be quickly overwhelmed. And that, in their minds, would provide them with the justification for killing me. So, I instead decided to appeal to any humanity they might have. I said as loud as I could manage, ‘I’ve got kids!’ Thankfully, some of the crowd stepped in and assisted me. Those few individuals protected me from the crowd and inched me toward the Capitol until my fellow officers could rescue me.”

At that moment, something clicked for a few in the angry mob of rioters. They changed from nearly killing Fanone to helping him.

How do we find that “click” that can dispel the fear and anger in so many today?

The battle before us is about America’s moral character. It’s about choosing light over darkness and love over hate. It’s not only about seeing the right way through the most tragic of circumstances but acting to pull us back from the brink of more.

The lesson from Officer Fanone’s moment of compassion is this: only when we begin to see ourselves in another can we begin to change from “yelling, cruel-eyed demons” to compassionate human beings; not by taking the easy path of anger and violence, but the path that transforms hope into help.

We need that “click” of humanity again.

For 240 years, we have worked, played, laughed, cried, and cheered, together. Whenever there was fear, we turned to faith, together. Whenever we’ve felt the burden and sacrifice too great, together we demonstrated the courage to overcome the obstacles we faced. Despite our imperfections, we remain an example of freedom, courage, and faith to the world and have become a guiding light of hope to the hopeless.

Only when we turn that light of compassion on others can change happen. Only when we call upon our highest aspirations of character can we begin to live in harmony and work for a more perfect union with the guidance of our better angels.


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