There are many quotes of Martin Luther King, Jr. that speak to our times. One of my favorites: Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. I knew someone who signed their emails with that quote. A person could build a life on those 14 words.
I have thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. often in the last weeks. I wished he could be here to watch Barack Obama campaign and win the election for president on a platform of change for our country. I wish he could feel the hope that so many feel as a result of that election, despite the problems we still face. I was so elated that Obama won that I have avoided reading about the negative backlash of the conservative right. I have paid little attention to the words or actions of people who did not want Barack Obama to become president.
I haven't had my head completely in the sand. I scan the headlines of the Portland paper, and I watch the local news. I knew that a student at a Maine high school was suspended for screaming racist comments about Obama. I also knew that the civil rights team at the school took action to protest the student's actions. Maine has an extensive network of civil rights teams in middle schools and high schools throughout the state.
What I didn't realize until yesterday was the extent of racist activity that has occurred throughout my state, a state whose majority voted for Barack Obama. My awareness might not have been raised if not for the column of Bill Nemitz, who writes a column on Tuesdays and Sundays for the Portland Press Herald. If I read nothing else in the paper, I read Bill's column. He often writes human interest stories about individuals who succeed in the face of great difficulty and situations where the right thing happens despite the odds.
Bill's column yesterday was not a feel-good, right-conquers-might type of story. The headline, "Don't honor signs of hate with silence," indicates the tone of his message. I knew from the seven words in the title that this column would be a call to action, much like the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.
And I was right. Bill starts with the details of a story about the owner of a small-town general store who started a pool that people entered by picking the date that President-elect Barack Obama would be assassinated. Someone tipped off the press, and the Associated Press filed a story last week. The owner has conveniently gone hunting up north for a week. The Secret Service is investigating, as is the Maine Attorney General's Office.
I couldn't believe what I was reading. I reread the account. How was this possible? What kind of person would think of such a thing? There was more. Bill goes on to write about another incident in another town, where black cardboard cut-outs in the shapes of people were hung from trees along roads after the election, an action met with protests by community members. Bill writes, "And that, Wessler [executive director of the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence] says, is exactly what should happen...."
Bill then quotes Thomas Harnett, Maine's assistant attorney general for civil rights education and enforcement: "The best way to counter hateful speech is to assert one's own right to free speech," Harnett said. "It's very important for people to speak out loudly and clearly and powerfully that this is not how Maine feels."
And that is why I am writing about this here: These incidents do not speak for the people of Maine. I, like the majority of Maine citizens, am appalled by the actions of a handful of people who project violence against President-elect Obama. Their attempts to separate and intimidate will not be tolerated. Their bullying behavior will not go unpunished.
News of these incidents is a call to all parents, teachers, ministers, business leaders, politicians, citizens, and students that we cannot remain passive in light of the hope of President-elect Obama's promise of change for our country. We must all remain vigilant and speak out against racist jokes, hateful comments, and violent actions. This matters, and we must not remain silent.