WASHINGTON — A group of conservative black pastors and intellectual leaders on Monday defended President Donald Trump amid criticism of his initial response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend.
While some, like Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer, have claimed that there is a "direct line" between the events in Charlottesville and the choices Trump made in his 2016 presidential campaign, conservative African-American clergy members, scholars and political activists decried such an argument in a Monday press conference at the National Press Club.
Organized by The Center of Urban Renewal and Education (CURE), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit think tank founded by conservative political commentator and activist Star Parker, the press conference was originally scheduled for the purpose of praising the Trump administration's plan to revitalize inner cities. But given the events of last weekend — where clashes between white supremacists and counter-protesters became deadly — Charlottesville and the related issue of racial conflict dominated much of the talk in the news conference.
Parker and the various African-American leaders standing with her at the podium were asked whether it is "disingenuous to pretend that President Trump is not the driver for a lot of the division we see now in this country."
The Rev. Derek McCoy, CURE's executive vice president who also directs the CURE National Clergy Network, was the first to respond to the question.
"One thing you need to understand — you are saying that the president is the instigator and I think that is absolutely wrong. No, it is not disingenuous," McCoy asserted. "The president made his comments and we are not standing up here to say that we are best friends with everything the president does but he is in an office that we all respect. ... If we are looking about how we can move our country forward, we are trying to make sure that we do that collectively together."
Corrogan Vaughn, a political activist who ran against Democrat Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland in the 2016 election, argued that those in the media who blame Trump for the racial tension in the United States are trying to turn Trump into a "villain."
"Don't make our commander in chief a villain when in actuality it is more the villainess of the media in terms of making something where nothing is," Vaughn stated.
William Allen, a professor of political philosophy at Michigan State University who formerly served as the chairman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, also responded, saying:
"I will say this about the repeated ascription of President Trump as the driver of hateful speech in our country: there are two things wrong with that view. The first thing wrong with it is we are pretending to hide behind blaming President Trump for our failures."
Allen, who also served as dean of James Madison College at Michigan State University, added that Americans have gotten away from the principle of standing up for the free speech rights of others.
He specifically recalled a time in 1977 when the American Civil Liberties Union defended the right of Nazi supporters to wear Nazi uniforms and display swastikas when the National Socialist Party of America marched through the predominantly Jewish community of Skokie, Illinois.
"There was a time when we celebrated what we might call the 'Skokie principle' — when the far-right marched through Skokie, Illinois, the left defended their right to march and speak even hateful speech. We are no longer celebrating the 'Skokie principle' in our country," Allen said. "We stopped celebrating the 'Skokie principle' long before Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency."
"If we have a problem, the problem is that we have lost our way. We have people that are wandering in the desert ... who have lost their way," Allen continued. "It is not going to do you much good to blame Moses. You gotta ask 'why have the people lost their way, where did they lose their faith and how can it be restored?' In short, I would encourage you and all who embraced this particular meme to challenge themselves to find better ways to express hopeful expectations of humanity."
Parker, a syndicated columnist who ran for the House of Representatives in 2010, added that some of the blame for the situation facing America today can be placed on the "alt-left."
"I would like to see the discussion continue because the president was accurate when he said there are both sides," Parker said. "I would like for us to finally address the 'alt-right' and the 'alt-left' — the instigators that continue this discussion that racism is so inherent in our society that they are going to look for it endlessly to then spark the tensions of the 'alt-right.' The 'alt-right' was sent underground. They have been emboldened because of the 'alt-left.'
Parker warned that Americans have a "hard choice to make."
"We are either going to be biblical and free or we are going to be secular in status. That is the cultural war. There is no need in us denying that we are not in one," Parker said.
"It has been intensifying over time and now it is coming to a culmination that can drag each and every one of us into another civil war. We don't want that and the clergy will stand up and support the president in his effort to make sure that we have this discussion and we have it civilly."
McCoy stated that another factor to the situation is the stifling of debate on college campuses.
"We are saying, 'You can only have one thought process and that is the only thing that can be allowed within the spectrum of our country.' I think that is wrong," McCoy said. "So you do have this 'alt-left,' 'alt-right' and these factions in society that are happening. But you gotta understand, debate is being shut down and debate is something that has always been on the foundational principles of America, where we can foster, flourish and grow together and learn from each other."
After receiving criticism from political leaders from both parties for not directly naming white supremacists and other far-right extremists in his initial statement responding to the violence in Charlottesville, Trump condemned white supremacists, the KKK and other far-right extremists by calling them "repugnant" while speaking during a White House event on Monday.
"Racism is evil — and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans," Trump said.
During the weekend protests, one woman died and at least 19 were injured when a car plowed into the counter-protesters.