Never Be Distracted From Our Duty To Teach Civil Rights
BY JACK LEVINE
Back in August 2016, just a week after the Charlottesville, Virginia Unite the Right white supremacist rally that resulted in the death of Civil Rights Advocate Heather Heyer, Charlotte and I joined our in-laws, Steve and Nancy Wasserman, on a visit to historic sites in Montgomery and Selma, Alabama. We had planned our trip weeks before the tragic events in Charlottesville but soon realized the timing was poignant.
While reading, viewing documentary videos, and dramatic films are certainly good ways to learn about history, I find that making the effort to personally visit iconic locations magnifies the impact of the experience. Being there matters.
Our motivation to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge which spans the Alabama River in Selma was to have our shoes follow the path of the hundreds of brave souls of all races who made their way in March 1965 on the 53-mile journey to the State Capitol in Montgomery highlighting the movement for voting rights on behalf of African Americans who were denied this most basic tenet of citizenship. Civil rights icon John Lewis was a leader of the march on that day which will forever be memorialized as Blood Sunday.
“Their valiant efforts were witnessed not only along the rain-soaked road they traveled,…”
The 1965 Selma to Montgomery trip was fraught with danger and distress. Blood flowed from the baton beatings by Alabama State Troopers and the bites of vicious attacks by police dogs. Harassment by Ku Klux Klan members included both verbal outbursts and deadly violence. All the while, the marchers prevailed. Their valiant efforts were witnessed not only along the rain-soaked road they traveled, but eyes around the world followed news coverage, interviews were broadcast and editorial columns spread the word of the purpose of the effort.
As visitors 50-plus years later, we walked across that same bridge and learned a few lessons. First, Edmund Pettus was a Confederate general who, after surviving several Civil War battles, practiced law, and rose in the ranks of the newly-formed Ku Klux Klan. His devotion as a Klansman culminated in his achieving the high rank of Grand Dragon which led to his election as a U.S. Senator in 1896, living to age 86,
According to The Southern Poverty Law Center: The Ku Klux Klan, with its long history of violence, is the oldest and most infamous of American hate groups. Although Black Americans have typically been the Klan’s primary target, it also has attacked Jews, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, and, until recently, Catholics.
How ironic that a century after our nation’s most divisive and deadly war, the American civil rights movement was propelled by the crossing of a bridge named for a man who fought for the perpetuation of slavery and labored throughout his long life for subjugation, racial segregation and leading an organization known for promoting lynching, mutilation and terrorist threats to strike fear in generations of African-Americans, Jews, Catholics, and others deemed unworthy of a safe life.
Another powerful lesson came clear. Courage is an attribute needed not only on the battlefield. Facing up to danger is also an essential ingredient in advocating for change which can bring its own physical peril requiring brave fortitude and powerful passion for the cause.
While the red markings of Bloody Sunday have long ago been washed clean from the cement of that iconic bridge, the lasting impact of the important sacrifices of the marchers and their supportive allies in government, business, civic and faith communities are forever worthy of defending.
Confronting Hate and Discrimination
I believe that discrimination that denies basic human equality and dignity is wrong. When personal attitude becomes a limitation of legal rights, action should be passionately pursued to rectify the situation.
Our nation’s history is chronicled by movements that address discriminatory laws, policies, and practices in need of reform. In fact, with the notable exception of the captive slaves who were brought here in bondage, many of our ancestors were motivated to come to this country because of the promise of religious, ethnic, cultural, and economic freedoms prohibited in their homelands.
From the earliest European settlers in the 1600s and throughout our nation’s history, each generation finds itself confronted by the uncomfortable reality of discrimination. The American Revolution was fueled, in part, by the colonists’ revulsion from the oppressive laws imposed by the autocratic British monarchy.
Thomas Jefferson is credited with penning the enduring words life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in our Declaration of Independence…even though these aspirations only applied to free white men at the time they were adopted and he himself was a slave owner who fathered children with Sally Hemmings, one of his slaves.
American abolitionists employed moral reasoning as they sought to eliminate the inhumane system of slavery in the early decades of the 1800s. The Civil War was waged as the economic engine of Southern agriculture was being threatened by the anti-slavery reforms promoted by leaders in the North and some conscientious voices in the South.
“That history is a shameful chapter that we should learn from and never repeat.”
As our nation’s borders pushed westward, the subjugation of the Native American people, both by law and military conquest, erupted into numerous battles resulting in treaties that extinguished rights and forced tribes to be exiled onto desolate reservations. That history is a shameful chapter that we should learn from and never repeat.
Over the decades, our nation has fought numerous foreign wars. To this day, our military forces battle against tyrannical governments and terrorist regimes whose people are subjected to cruelties we seek to alleviate, at great cost in human life, family stability, and economic investment.
Ours is a nation that strives to stand up for others in times of need whether by natural disaster, blight, disease, or the rule of tyrants. Despite our own challenges at home, we serve as a beacon of beneficence when desperation calls. We should welcome that role and continue to accept that responsibility when humanitarian assistance is crucial to survival.
The Tides of Change
My advocacy spirit was nurtured in a household of immigrants whose influence lives on me today. My maternal grandparents and my father escaped the brutality of Czarist Russia to find new freedoms and plant new roots for their children. They struggled to live their lives free from being told where they may or may not reside, worship, work, or educate their children. They lived to enjoy the bountiful fruits of United States citizenship.
My Grandma Minnie was an active teenaged suffragist before she became a naturalized citizen in 1919, one year before women were enfranchised as legal voters. She vividly recalled being discriminated against because of her gender and became a life-long advocate for justice and freedom. In her words, “It’s just not fair to treat people different than I want to be treated.” She cherished her rights, never missed the opportunity to vote, and assertively confronted any words or deeds by others that smacked of unjust discrimination.
Over the past century, the movements for women’s suffrage, child labor laws, access to public education, worker rights, civil and LGBTQ rights, and reforms to rectify discrimination against people with various physical and developmental challenges have been fought for on the streets, debated in the chambers of government, and further defined in our courts.
“Change is never easy. Neither is confronting an uncomfortable reality a simple task.”
While the waves of natural forces may slowly erode rocky shores, we have the responsibility as thinking and feeling citizens not to wait for social reform to happen on its own. It never has, nor ever will. We have the freedom to express ourselves and have the right to speak openly to each other and to our elected officials about ways we can improve the quality of life for all members of our community.
Change is never easy. Neither is confronting an uncomfortable reality a simple task. But as we look back at the history of discrimination based on race, gender, religion, class, sexual preference, age, and disability, it becomes clear to me that we have always been able to overcome differences and modify hateful emotions so that basic human rights will prevail.
I believe we have come to a critical crossroads in our nation where a direction needs to be chosen. Will we travel the high road of equal human rights or muddle along the path of hypocrisy? If we truly believe that we are all created equal, and we have the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it is time to renounce discrimination and move forward without fear, hate, and rejection.
To me, the answer rests on one simple yet profound principle…as written in Matthew 7.1-2 “Judge not yet ye’ be judged, for, in the way you judge, you will be judged.”
While our attention is rightfully focused on the increased visibility of groups spewing hateful ideology, promoting violence and terrorism against innocent citizens, law enforcement officers, and religious adherents both at home and abroad, we should never be distracted from our duty to teach our children that humanity’s greatest as aspiration is peace, love and taking individual responsibility to work tirelessly to assure a better future.