Whenever I visit Washington, D.C., I head to the Jefferson Memorial late at night. The first time I visited I was moved to tears by Jefferson’s words, sent across the ages as a roadmap to a more “perfect union.” I read every word written on the rotunda and then sit and contemplate the meaning: “We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."

I paid another visit a few months ago with my wife who is an immigrant. As we walked out of the rotunda, she turned to me and said, “I now understand why you come here.”

Jefferson was a horrible human being. A slave owner and rapist that kept his own children enslaved even after his death. But I am able to separate Jefferson the man from Jefferson the founder. Just as I can separate Bill Cosby from Cliff Huxtable. Cosby is a rapist. Cliff Huxtable is the role model who inspired me to go to law school and develop a love of African American art that hung on the walls of his Brooklyn brownstone.

I have an admiration for the men who founded this country, despite the fact their human flaws led to the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of my family: because they created the greatest experiment in democracy the world has ever known.

They knew one day we would elect a talented autocrat; that his seductive siren to the dark side would attract millions. But they protected us from ourselves by dispersing power among the three branches of the federal government and to the states. And over the last few weeks, the system they created held.

Some members of the U.S. Senate and House attempted a legislative coup on Jan. 6. Their colleagues, historians and great-grandchildren will debate whether they are freedom fighters or insurrectionists.

However, our democracy was tested and we came through with flying colors. After the mob attacked the Capitol, Joe Biden did not go into hiding; the autocrat did. Conservative Republican state officials across the country refused to go along with the lie. Conservative Republican judges, many of whom abhor Joe Biden’s policies, nevertheless honored their oath to the Constitution.

For most of Black Americans’ history, we were subjected to state-sponsored terrorism. In 1870, in Caddo Parish, white mobs turned on newly freed slaves with such vengeance it became known across the world as “Bloody Caddo.”

The first time I saw a condom was the Sunday morning I went with my older brothers and grandparents to clean up our sanctuary, the Mt. Sariah Baptist Church in Cotton Valley. A White mob had spent the night before fornicating on its grounds and then broke into the church, trashed it and defecated on the offering table. I was 7 years old.

James Baldwin said for “black Americans the Statue of Liberty is simply a very bitter joke.” At any point before 1963, Black Americans could have taken up arms and stormed the United States Capitol and history would have recorded them as patriots.

They placed their faith in a system created by slave owners two hundred years earlier. As a child I watched then-Gov. Lester Maddox, of Georgia, stand in the state capitol holding an ax handle, spewing hate against Blacks and Jews. On Jan. 5, Georgia elected a Black preacher and a Jew to the U.S. Senate.

Juxtapose that against a group of affluent, well-educated white men and women sitting in the Capitol, attempting to block the peaceful transfer of power because their guy lost the election. They did so even after the mob had stormed the building.

What Jefferson, Washington and Hamilton knew was that the biggest threat to our democracy would not be from foreign actors, but from a mob seduced by an autocrat. It was not the Russians, Chinese or Muslim extremists who trashed the Capitol and went looking to hang Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi. It was our neighbors, inflamed by the lies of some of our elected leaders, who crashed through the doors.

Our democracy will be tested in the future. But as long as a majority of us choose the peaceful transfer of power over the mob, we can attain that more perfect union. And then we can all declare in the words of that old Negro spiritual “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last.”

Larry English is a Shreveport lawyer.