Don’t let democracy go poof

Published 12:46 pm Wednesday, March 2, 2022

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I grew up in Suffolk.

In the summer of 1970 our church and other like-minded churches in Nansemond County built a Christian — according to their definition — high school. In spite of the not-so-subtle pressure from their fellow church members, my parents decided to let me continue going to public school because it saved them from paying a hefty private school tuition.

My girlfriend went to the all-white private school and I went to the previously all Black public school. I could go to her school functions, but her parents forbade her to go to mine. That budding romance ended within the first semester of integration. Poof! Just like that.

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Integration and the subsequent redistricting — aka gerrymandering — by local politicians meant that I had to go to a school where I represented a 12% minority. The first time a Black student came to my home, my Dad met him with a pistol in hand. I managed to position myself so that my friend could make a quick getaway.

Word of that sort of drama gets around fast in high school. No other students, white or Black, ever came to visit me after that. I lost any chance of a social life after that. Poof! Just like that.

Calvin, a fellow 10th grader, later showed me a book he wanted me to see. After he had flipped through a few pictures I said in a shocked voice, “I didn’t have anything to do with any of this” and backed away. What terrified me most about Calvin’s book was all the White people grinning at the camera, evidently confident that any photos of them at the scene of an ongoing first-degree murder — a lynching — would never be used against them in a court of law.

I learned later that of the 4,467 documented lynchings in the U.S. between 1883 and 1941 about three-fourths of the victims were Black. That’s when I realized that I had been taught a carefully redacted version of U.S. history. The people responsible for my education had purposefully chopped out the uncomfortable — for them — parts. Poof! Just like that.

More than 50 years later, while watching the Jan. 6, 2021, riot and seeing that hangman’s scaffold and noose in front of our nation’s Capitol building, I vividly remembered Calvin’s book. It occurred to me that if that mob had found their targets, then we would have seen something similar to the photos of Calvin’s book on the news that night, except this time our nation’s Capitol would be in the background and some of our duly elected officials would be hanging above a grinning lynch mob. And faith in a free and fair election would have been further eroded. Poof! Just like that.

The J6 riot also reminded me of the time I was deployed to the former Republic of Yugoslavia in 1995. Over 7,000 Muslims were slaughtered by Serbs in Srebrenica during my deployment. It unnerved me how ironic my title was at the time: peacekeeper?

Peace was impossible to keep given that the Serbian leader continued to foment his all-too-eager followers to annihilate their perceived enemies. Eventually he was brought to justice but it took several years to hold him accountable for his advocacy of “ethnic cleansing” — a clinically sounding, cold-blooded phrase for mass murder. He intentionally destroyed his country, which ultimately resulted in his own demise. Poof! Just like that!

One of the reasons the oath required to join the U.S. military is to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” is that the founders of the Constitution feared that given an opportunity, an elected leader could dismantle the democratic process and the institutions that support it and make themselves king. Kings demand absolute obedience. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the individual would then be lost under an authoritarian rule. Poof! Just like that!

Calvin’s book graphically illustrates what happens when the Constitution is blatantly violated. For instance, the 14th Amendment states, “… nor deny to any persons … the equal protection of the laws.” Lynch mobs clearly violate this amendment as well as many other federal and state laws. Without adherence to law and order, we will lose our democracy. Poof! Just like that!

Looking back over the decades, the best educational moment that ever happened to me was when Calvin showed me his book and then left me alone to draw my own conclusions. I bought a copy of Calvin’s book and gave it to my daughter. As a university professor, she uses it in her lectures.

If we don’t teach our children about our history and how the Constitution is our nation’s guiding principle, then we will lose our democracy. Poof! Just like that!


Melvin Brinkley, a retired Veterans Affairs and Air Force chaplain now living in Davis, California, graduated from Suffolk’s John F. Kennedy High School in 1973. He graduated from the University of Virginia in 1977 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant that year. He also holds a Master of Divinity from Emory University. His email address is