A Wake Up Call for Our Democracy: Reflections from Humanities Teacher, Bryon Williams

In response to the events that took place on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, January 6, Penguin Hall gathered together to reflect, process and respond as a community. As part of our weekly virtual Good Morning APH assemblies, Humanities teacher Bryon Williams, shared his reflection on the current state of our nation.

“We’ve heard this called ‘an assault on our democracy.’ The United States has prided itself on being a country that by definition does not have a king or a ruler, but has a government of the people in which citizens have a voice in choosing their own representatives–a democracy.

So in the chat, please type your answer to this: “How old do you think our democracy is?” You can give an age in years or give the year when you think it began. There is not an answer key and this is not graded!

This is open to interpretation. A conventional view sees the founding of our democracy about two and a half centuries ago. There are others who say our democracy actually isn’t much older than I am. So let’s look at how that’s possible.

In her remarks, Ms. Martins quoted Congressman John Lewis, and he has been on my mind a lot this week. John Lewis was of course a Black congressman from Georgia and a hero of the Civil Rights Movement. He passed away last July, and when he died, one writer in a tribute called him an ‘American founder.’ More than a Civil Rights icon– a founder of this democracy.

When we typically think of founders, we think of independence from Britain, of 18th century men in powdered wigs who wrote the Declaration and the Constitution. But we also know that the new nation they founded excluded so many of its own people that it might not fully qualify as a democracy.

Another founding could be said to have occurred after the Civil War, when the Constitution was amended to end slavery and to grant Black men the right to vote. This was a huge step forward, but we know that women still could not vote. For almost another century, Black people were prevented from voting through lynching and terror and numerous forms of Jim Crow discrimination. A system in which entire groups of citizens are denied participation based on race or gender might not deserve the label of ‘democracy.’

In the 1960’s, John Lewis and other grass-roots activists sought to expand our democracy by mobilizing for voting rights. And people died fighting for those rights. There were the notorious Freedom Summer murders of 1964, when activists trying to register black voters in Mississippi were murdered, their bodies disposed of and their killers never brought to full justice. Numerous peaceful demonstrators were killed by mobs or by police. In 1965, John Lewis himself led a peaceful march for voting rights out of Selma, Alabama, and suffered a fractured skull when state troopers beat the marchers with clubs on a day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday.

Courtesy of AP Images, https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/eyewitness/html.php?section=2

This all served as a wake-up call, though– something good came out of these horrible events. The footage of the Bloody Sunday attacks so shocked the country and the world that support surged for a federal Voting Rights Act, which was passed by Congress later that year.

So this is how some see 1965 and the Voting Rights Act as a new founding of the most inclusive version of our democracy, and see John Lewis and others like him as founders of that democracy.

So when we witnessed the attack on Wednesday, one of the things that occurred to me was that when an insurrectionist mob invaded the U.S. Capitol and violently disrupted the vote certification, the votes being certified were votes that had been paid for with lives and with blood. People died for those votes. John Lewis and countless others bled for those votes. And the mob didn’t want those votes to count. We should all be deeply offended by that.

Over the past few years, there has been a struggle in this country over whose lives matter. Wednesday saw a battle over whose votes matter, yet another battle in this country over who will be included in our democracy and who will not.

I hope it serves as a wake-up call for our democracy. I’ve seen numerous calls for us coming together as a country, which is of course necessary and important. But I also think that truth has to come before reconciliation. We need to insist on the truth about Wednesday’s attack, why it happened, and who is responsible for it, for we have seen almost no taking of responsibility.

It is not uncivil to insist on truth and accountability before simply ‘moving on.’ It is not partisan to speak up and call things by their names. I really hope something good comes out of all this, and I’m optimistic because I’m fortunate to work with so many young people, and I know how much you care. Your voices and your action are essential to making sure this wake-up call leads to something better for our country and our democracy.”