When President Donald Trump recently told four Democratic congresswomen to “go home,” nobody needed simultaneous translation. It’s a hurtful taunt that says, “This is my America, not yours. You don’t belong here.” The taunt goes back years and years.
How many years?
The unveiling of this week’s version of presidential racism, which led to congressional condemnation of Trump, made me think of an African-American civil rights icon named Clarence Mitchell Jr.
And it made me think of a Jewish civic leader named Walter Sondheim.
And it made me think of a local Italian-Catholic political leader named Tommy D’Alesandro Jr., who gave us the House Speaker named Nancy Pelosi. She showed the whole country this week that we’ve had enough of this Trumpian bigotry.
In the ‘40s, it was D’Alesandro who told Italian-Americans that they were first-class U.S. citizens when the world sometimes told them otherwise. As a young man trying to gain a foothold in Baltimore politics, the future three-time mayor of Baltimore went to one political club after another when he was starting out, back when those clubs meant all the real power in a city run by political machines.
Go home, he was told. It was Trump’s message, three-quarters of a century earlier. Go back to your own neighborhood. Go back to Italy, for all we care. So D’Alesandro started his own club, and made history.
Tommy was mayor when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the racial integration of America’s public schools. The president of the Baltimore City school board back then was Walter Sondheim, who openly backed integration.
For his trouble, vandals burned a cross on Sondheim’s front lawn. Go back to your own, they were telling him with their fiery religious symbol. Sondheim stood his ground. On the day of the Supreme Court decision, he went to D’Alesandro. Leaders in the surrounding counties were already indicating they’d drag their feet before integrating their schools.
“What do you want to do with it?” Sondheim asked D’Alesandro.
“The priests tell me it’s the right thing,” Tommy said. That’s all he needed. That, and a whole history of being told he was an outsider, that he should “go home.” He knew what it meant to be marginalized.
When the schools opened the following fall of 1954, Clarence Mitchell Jr. took his son, Keiffer, to Gwynns Falls Park Junior High, where he’d enrolled as one of eight blacks among 300 whites.
Hundreds of white adults stood outside the school. It was awful, the abuse they screamed at young Keiffer. They yelled, “Go home, nigger. Go home.” Some had signs, which said, “Go back to Africa.” But Africa wasn’t home. Home was Druid Hill Avenue, in America.
Keiffer went into the school, and his father faced down the furious crowd outside. He had a sign of his own, and he marched up and down the sidewalk and silently faced the onslaught. The sign said all he needed to say.
It said, “I am an American, too.”
Somebody needs to make that case to the president of the United States, who says those who disagree with him “hate America.” He tells them, “Go home.”
Nancy Pelosi, daughter of Tommy D’Alesandro and a witness to the courage of Walter Sondheim and Clarence Mitchell Jr., tells Trump his words are “disgraceful and disgusting and racist.”
The history books will now tell everyone that this president was condemned by the U.S. Congress for racism.
If this president ever read a history book, he might have understood the pain caused by his words, and why so many declare him, and his language, racist.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).