The article featured on BCC’s sideboard found here has inspired me to inner musings. I like the idea that a community’s choice to exceed the mark, to communally do good simply for the sake of rightness has a lasting legacy, even if that legacy is only on a few individuals. I also like the common theme of integration that weaves through such stories.In the NPR article featured above, the thesis is that Martin Luther King, Jr., spent a summer working on a tobacco farm in the Hartford, Connecticut suburb of Simsbury. He reported in letters home to his family that the white people of this community were kind and accepting of him, and that he, for the first time, experienced an un-segregated life. He ate in fine restaurants, went to shows, and socialized in the white community. This time inspired him to not only fight against segregation, but also to become a minister. After returning home, he was never again able to see the bitterness of separate and unequal treatment as being acceptable and “fought” for the rest of his life, though a doctrine of non-violence, to end segregation and allow all Americans the simple right of equal participation in society.
I don’t think we should delude ourselves into thinking that racism was absent in the North altogether. Rather, I think the people of Simsbury chose a higher path. As a community, at least in the eyes of one young visitor, they chose to act according to a higher good rather than give in to baser instincts. Their uncelebrated choice for everyday morality had a lasting effect not only on that one young black aspiring preacher, but on every one in America who has been inspired to “a dream” as a result of Dr. King’s work.
This story reminded me of some other communities where a choice for good, even if it was personally uncomfortable or risky, had a lasting, if uncelebrated impact. Initially in Denmark, during World War II, Germany left the country basically alone as a “Protectorate,” not wanting to upset the relatively peaceful balance there. The country leaders reported to Nazi Germany that they had no “jewish problem” in Denmark. In fact, there was no Jewish problem there. The Jewish population was well integrated into Danish life, and while there was some anti-Semitic sentiment, by and large the population was supportive of their jewish neighbors. However, by 1943, voices within Nazi Germany would not allow the Danish jews to remain un-molested any longer. Rather than allow their jewish neighbors to be deported to a concentration camp, the Danish people resisted en masse and facilitated a huge refugee movement to neutral Sweden. The Danish jews who were not sent to Sweden were hidden by their non-jewish neighbors and friends. This mass resistance ended in saving roughly 99% of the Danish jewish population. Not only were lives and future generations of Danish citizens saved, the country created a story for itself–one of reaching for a higher, more courageous good. As a visitor to the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. more than 50 years later, my personal feelings of devastation were so strong that I felt I could hardly move. One of the final footnotes to the very effective display, was a reference to how it could have been different by pointing to the small but poignant example of Denmark. After reading that, I felt I could breathe again–some small light of hope and morality existed.
On a much less grand scale, I’ve come across two unpublicized stories of passive resistance to racism in American history that deserve to be told. One friend of Japanese descent tells how his mother’s family was saved from internment during World War II. The family lived in a largely Italian neighborhood in New York. As law enforcement officers would come around and question people regarding the Japanese family down the street, the Italian neighbors put up a united front and vouched for the family, convincing law enforcement to leave them alone. In east Salt Lake, I heard of an entire ward that kept an unofficial neighborhood watch, calling the Japanese neighbors and warning them to stay indoors whenever police cars were seen cruising the neighborhood, saving this family from internment. I’ve never really heard anyone in press or writing talk about these unofficial neighborhood resistances during the war, but the legacy of this community action is strong in the families of those affected.
Looking at these stories, it occurs to me that the choice to do good and right, even in the face of tradition, common notions of acceptable behavior, pressure, or even some personal risk, carries with it another message. Certainly, each of these stories is a morality tale on standing up for what is right. But each of these stories also gives an example of the power of integration. Simsbury chose to be integrated, and that one community’s choice contributed to vast movements of American history. Denmark chose to integrate its Jewish citizens into everyday life, and they became so Danish that ordinary Danes were offended at the idea of their deportation to camps. The Japanese families that I referred to were such a part of their communities that neighbors naturally looked out for them. What can we learn from this? Were the victims in these stories the only ones to benefit from the integration, or did the communities at large become more complete for the effort? Who are we excluding in our lives? Can we integrate these people as neighbors, colleagues, and friends, even if the larger world scorns them for some named reason? How can our sense of rightness, good, and morality be extended to not only caring for the scorned, outcast, and at-risk, but also to accepting them as “neighbor” in the way that Christ taught? Could any duty be more fundamentally Christian than that?