When violent white supremacy exploded in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend, many of us wondered how these young men could have gone awry, descending not only into bigotry but hate so virulent that they could embrace Nazism and murder in service of racial purity.
Where and how did they acquire their sick ideology? What did their parents teach or model for these men that led to their acceptance of such dark and cancerous evil? Why didn't anyone point them in another direction?
This week, I've also asked myself if I have done enough to teach my children about the dignity and inherent worth of every person.
I pray I have. This I know: If my daughter and son have learned anything about love and tolerance from their dad, it's because my mother taught it to me.
In recent decades, few weeks have passed that I haven't recalled a seminal, searing event of my childhood, a moment as indelible in my early memory as the Kennedy assassination or Neil Armstrong's Moon walk. It was the Sunday morning in the late-1960s when my mother -- outraged by the humiliation of a black woman who visited our church -- dressed down our pastor.
The middle-aged woman was driving to worship when her car broke down in front of the Pinecrest Church of Christ in Beaumont, Texas. Not wishing to miss worship, she came inside. Most members welcomed her warmly. In acknowledging her, however, our pastor explained to the congregation the unusual circumstances that brought this interloper to us, the subtext being we could rest easy knowing she wouldn't return.
My mother was livid. After the service, she stormed to the entrance where the pastor greeted members. She lambasted him for having made this woman uncomfortable.
My mother's passion in defense of a woman she believed had been humiliated was a wonder to behold. I will be forever proud of how she acted in that moment and grateful for what I learned from her spunk and character.
"People learn to be whatever their society and culture teaches them," Jennifer Richeson, a Yale University social psychologist, told the Washington Post recently. "We often assume that it takes parents actively teaching their kids, for them to be racist. The truth is that unless parents actively teach kids not be racists, they will be."
I never regarded my parents as civil rights leaders. But while I had friends whose parents were openly racist, mine never uttered a racial epithet in our presence. My siblings and I were forbidden from speaking such profanity, too.
I asked my mother about all of this a few years ago. "How did you know to be so outraged by what happened that morning in church?" She remembered the incident, but it was clear she didn't view her actions as heroic but rather something that emerged from her faith and what she learned from her parents, particularly my German-American grandfather who had suffered ethnic bigotry during the World War I.
She also reminded me of the black man, Albert, who was a constant presence in my childhood. I had always thought of him as an associate and friend of my grandfather, only to learn how my mother's father had encountered the waif when my mother was young and gave him a home and later a business. My mother grew up with him, regarding him almost as a sibling.
That conversation prompted another indelible memory from my childhood -- my grandfather's funeral in 1968, when my mother spotted Albert as he slipped quietly into a pew in the rear of the chapel. When she saw him, my mother got up, marched to the back and took Albert by the hand. She led him to the front and sat him next to her. It was a powerful statement of her affinity and affection for the man she grew up with and a statement about his role in our family.
The more I think about my childhood, the more such memories flood my mind. My parents didn't lecture us much about race relations, and they were not political or social liberals. But in their own way, they taught my brother, sister and me all we needed to know about honoring the dignity of every person.
I know that simply exuding kindness and respect for others does not make one a civil rights leader, but I also know reverence for the humanity and dignity of all people is how the seeds of social justice are planted and nurtured.
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter," the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said.
What we sometimes forget is that the unending quest for justice and human rights begins, not in the public square, but in the home. And it is taught, not just with words, but with actions -- courage, respect, kindness and love -- and the recognition that whatever we say and do, our children are watching and learning.
Robert Mann, an author and former U.S. Senate and gubernatorial staffer, holds the Manship Chair in Journalism at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. Read more from him at his blog, >Something Like the Truth. Follow him on Twitter >@RTMannJr or email him at >email@example.com.