In recent weeks, much of America has listened in disbelief as President Donald Trump has careened from one insensitive, often ludicrous, comment to another.
From his remarks in the wake of the Charlottesville, Va., tragedy that there were “many good people on both sides” to pardoning convicted criminal and racist Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Trump has turned normal presidential behavior on its head.
As I try to come to terms with this “new America,” I am left to ponder the lives of my paternal grandfather and father. I am guessing that both, now deceased but proud Americans in their days, would weep at what has become of this experiment called America. Both my grandfather and father played important roles in making America what it was before Jan. 20, 2017.
William A. Smith, my grandfather, took action 90 years ago to run the Ku Klux Klan out of Kansas. Elected state attorney general in 1926, he delivered on his electoral commitment — at no small physical risk to him and his family —to revoke the Klan’s corporate charter. Subsequently, in 1949, then Kansas Supreme Court Justice Smith wrote the court’s decision ending school segregation in Kansas. The decision was the final “prelude” court action before the famous U.S. Supreme Court 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
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Much of William Smith’s life was committed to civil equality and respect, and his legacy is one of respect for others, no matter their race or color.
In the predawn hours of June 6, 1944, his son and my father, Donald C. Smith, landed in Normandy, France. An 18-year-old who had never seen war, my father was thrust into a living hell. He went on to serve with distinction with the legendary 82nd Airborne Division in Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge. In April 1945, my father was among the soldiers who liberated the Wöbbelin, Germany, concentration camp. Subsequently, he was seriously injured in Germany and spent nine months at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Denver and then Camp Carson in Colorado Springs. Most of those months were spent in a full body cast, his life’s ambitions forever altered in his service to our country battling the Nazis across Europe.
The heritage provided by William and Donald Smith has been on my mind every day since Donald Trump became president. I have asked myself two simple questions: Is America the land of men like William and Donald Smith? Or has it changed so vastly that Nazis and white supremacists represent ideas not worthy of total and complete rejection? When a president does not call out such action as reprehensible, is he not effectively disrespecting the men and women who have fought for civil rights for all and against tyranny?
Sometimes I am disgusted with Trump. Other times I am bewildered. But at all times I ask, what does it say about a country that looks the other way and ignores or disrespects those who need a helping hand?
I am often near tears to think that America is now led by a man for whom the great and heroic efforts of those who came before have been pitched aside, as if they were unimportant, as if they were for naught.
My America and Donald Trump’s America are two different countries.
Don C. Smith Jr. is an associate professor of the practice of law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.