The Birthright of Human Dignity

Will Thomas - Westford, Vermont
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, October 11, 2013
Will Thomas

In his 1953 memoir, “The Seeking,” Will Thomas detailed his family’s experience of moving to an all-white New England town. His essay explores how his own bigotry once shaped his beliefs.

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In 1946, I decided I did not wish to live in my native land any longer; and that I would take my wife and children to Haiti, where as Negroes in a Negro republic, we would be free of racial prejudice and our opportunities would be limited only by our ability to use them.

I do not believe I need detail the reasons behind this unhappy decision, except to say that being considered and treated as an inferior on every level of life can become intolerable, especially when it is by one’s race rather than his individual worth, or lack of it, that he is pre-judged — and condemned.

When I reached this point, I had become an unbeliever in both God and country, for it seemed to me that racial segregation and all that it implied was as rigid on the spiritual as on the temporal plane. And so finally I made the decision to leave my native land — permanently.

However, I did not do it. Love of country, I found, can be very deep, very strong. So I thought to make one final try in my motherland for the equality of status which I considered I had been denied; and I chose Vermont for the experiment. I reasoned that because of its great traditions of personal freedom there was at least a chance that I and my family might find there what we so yearned for, and we did. In the small farming community where we settled, we were accepted on a basis of individuality unqualified by race.

However, it is not that which now seems most important to me. It is, rather, that in such a friendly atmosphere, and amid the quiet of a beautiful countryside, it was possible to think calmly, and gradually to gain understandings by which I believe I can live in peace with other men, and with myself, for the rest of my life.

One of these understandings is that unless one seeks sincerely for whatever it is he most wants, he surely will not find it, and that what I really had been seeking most of my life was not what I wanted but instead was justification for the resentments I felt. This is not to say there was not cause for those resentments, but rather that I had so concentrated upon them I could not see that the picture was not all bad — that in fact, there was considerable good in it.

I had condemned my country and my religion because I viewed only what seemed wrong in both. But when I was able to remove the blinds of my own prejudice, it became clear that these failures, these flaws in church and state, were human failures, human flaws, and not mere self-willed bigotry; and that within each there were, and there always had been, many who had worked and fought for what was right.

I think the core of my earlier bitterness had been the conviction that I had been denied my birthright of human dignity. But I know now that is something which cannot be given or taken away by man.

It has been written that he who seeks shall find, and that to him who asks, it shall be given. And I can only testify that when I did seek, I did find; and that when I asked, it was given to me. And I know that only the God I once denied could bestow such precious gifts.

Will Thomas was born in Kansas City and worked as a newspaper writer, editor and prizefighter. He eventually settled in Vermont with his wife and three children. His book, “The Seeking," details the family’s integration into the all-white community of Westford. Long out of print, it has recently been re-published as part of the Northeastern Library of Black Literature and is available at the This I Believe Store .

Independently produced by Dan Gediman for This I Believe, Inc.