This I believe
What I learned as a 19 year old college student back in 1965 sticks to my very bones today. Back then I went on a journey, which strengthened my core belief that how we treated others had as much to do with human rights as with civil rights.
I believed that all people deserve to be treated fairly…that all children deserve educational opportunities…that every adult despite race, religion, or ethnicity had a right to vote and to job opportunities, and to decent housing, and to health care, and to be treated with respect and dignity.
These beliefs were tested when, along with three other students, I left our safe, quite non-diverse, and very conservative Indiana campus to travel to Alabama to take part in the MLK freedom march to Montgomery.
I had to get my parents permission to go on this journey – the college would take no responsibility for me. Reluctantly, they consented. The last words I heard were, “I don’t know why you’d want to do anything so foolish like that but, just go”.
Maybe they were frightened for my safety but I suspect they just didn’t want me to get involved in “that business”. My mom was a Southerner by birth but didn’t have a prejudiced bone in her body. My dad, however, a second generation immigrant transplanted to a small New England town, did. I grew up in a patriarchal family with a steady undertow of racial and anti-Semitic attitudes, which flowed freely through our household, through the extended family, and beyond, to the wider community. My ‘equal rights’ belief was probably helped along by witnessing children picking cotton in the fields of North Carolina, by an alcoholic uncle ranting about “nigers” and venereal disease, and by current events such as Governor Barnett standing in the doorway to deny black students entry into their state university. I remember asking my dad what he would do if he’d been born black and hearing him say “well, then, I’d have to hate the whites”. I only wondered why he had to hate at all.
We joined the march on the outskirts of Montgomery the night before it went into the capitol. Not one of us knew what to expect. I was immediately overwhelmed by the huge crowd, the music, the hopeful energy, and especially by the acceptance of our white faces amongst the predominance of black faces. I felt safe enough. The March into the capitol was an orderly, soulful experience. Positioned towards the front we could look back up the main boulevard to see what I thought must be hundreds of thousands of others behind us – a human ribbon of singing and chanting made up of mostly black people. I remember thinking that surely this will change the world.
Today I still believe strongly in human rights – measured through justice and peace, dignity and respect for all peoples.
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