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Thirty-seven years ago this week, I put on a bulletproof vest and entered a white-supremacist compound to try to convince the group they were outmanned and outgunned and should surrender.
As I have reflected on that moment as well as the racial tension and civil unrest that have roiled our nation over the past two years, I have thought about the lessons we learn from our history.
The people I confronted on April 21, 1985, were members of the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, known as the CSA, and one of their missions was to take down the United States government. Members of the CSA had sent out teams to assassinate several government officials, including me.
On April 21, 1985, I was the United States Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, appointed three years earlier by President Ronald Reagan. For two years, my office had monitored the CSA in cooperation with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Missouri, as well as the FBI and the ATF.
As we developed our strategy to flush out the CSA, we were well aware that the white supremacists had stockpiled high-powered weapons and weren’t afraid to shoot law enforcement officers. Just a year earlier, CSA member Richard Snell shot and killed a black Arkansas State Trooper who had stopped him for a traffic violation. His name was Louis Bryant, and he was a true hero.
We anticipated fierce resistance, so we brought over 200 law enforcement officers to the small town of Elijah, Missouri, many of them disguised as anglers in town to fish. I joined several other agents on the negotiating team. We persuaded Jim Ellison, the CSA founder who had purchased the land for the compound, that his best hope was to surrender. After three days of negotiations, all the men laid down their weapons, and the standoff ended without gunfire or bloodshed. That day also marked the end of the CSA. But it wasn’t the death of the dangerously misguided belief that one race is superior to another.
On the anniversary of that tense standoff with the white supremacists of the CSA, I understand there remains much work to be done to close the gaps among Americans of different races, religions, and beliefs.
Ultimately, I am hopeful. Throughout history, people have often expressed their disagreement with violent language, and sometimes it goes further into actual violence, so this is nothing new. But I am optimistic because in America we learn from the mistakes of the past.
Nearly forty years ago, I joined a band of hundreds of good people who linked arms to confront those who believed violence and racial hatred were the answer to their anger. Sometimes I fear we are not moving fast enough toward an America that is truly equal. But we are making progress as long as we listen to each other and care about each other.
There will be more times when we must stand shoulder to shoulder against hate just as those federal and state agents did nearly forty years ago in western Arkansas. But Americans’ bedrock belief that all men are created equal echoes in our founding documents and rises from our hearts as we continually travel toward that more perfect union.