Many years ago when I was a high school student living in Buffalo, N.Y., my mother and father lived in the Fairfax Hotel, which had many permanent guests. Living in a three-room suite was a little cramped with two adults and a young man who was full of energy, but we all survived, and many times I remember with some fondness many of the people I came to know in the hotel.
One was Al Clark, a bellhop. He was very athletic and always was in great spirits. When my parents would go out for the evening Al would sometimes stay with me, and as a result we became good friends. When I played high school football, he never missed a game. After the game, he would tell me what I did wrong and what I did right. There were many times I would ask him to help me with my homework and he always would comply. And because my dad traveled so much, in many ways Al served in that capacity and always was there to guide me. I never for one minute thought about his being black or that his guiding me through my teen years was anything unusual. Al Clark shaped how I felt about a lot of things, and it wasn't until I was older that I realized how much he contributed to my life.
That may be why I am always surprised at the way people have to be told they should feel good about the diversity of our culture. I have always felt that our mix of races, religions and ethnicities is the backbone of this great democracy. People should be judged on their merits as people and not on the color of their skin or their religion. When I see prejudice, I am both disappointed and disgusted.
While traveling recently on a plane from Chicago to Fort Myers, Fla., to attend a healthcare think tank, I read an account of a great event in recent history, one you may not have heard about. The hero of the story is Dan Ponder, a businessman and former Georgia state legislator who recently was given the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.
In 2000, the Georgia Legislature was debating a hate-crimes bill. At that time it looked as though the bill would be defeated easily. Then Ponder, at that time a Republican representative from a rural, conservative district in southern Georgia, rose to speak. I would like to share his words with you:
"I am probably the last person, the most unlikely person, whom you would expect to be speaking from the well about hate-crime legislation. ... I am a white Republican, who lives in the very southwest corner of the most ultraconservative part of this state. ... I was raised in a conservative Baptist church. I went to a large, mostly white Southern university. I lived in and was the president of the largest, totally white fraternity on that campus. I had nine separate great-great-great-grandfathers who fought for the Confederacy. ... And it is not something that I am terribly proud of, but it is just part of my heritage, that not one, but several of those lines actually owned slaves.
"There was one woman in my life who made a huge difference and her name was Mary Ward. She began working for my family before I was born. She was a young black woman whose own grandmother raised my mother. Mary, or May-Mar as I called her, came every morning before I was awake to cook breakfast so it would be on the table. She cooked our lunch. She washed our clothes.
"But she was much more than that. She read books to me. When I was playing Little League, she would go out and catch the ball with me. She was never, ever afraid to discipline me or spank me. She expected the absolute best out of me, perhaps, and I am sure, even more than she did her own children. She would even travel with my family when we would go to our house in Florida during the summer, just as her own grandmother had done.
"One day when I was about 12 or 13, I was leaving for school. As I was walking out the door she turned to kiss me goodbye. And for some reason, I turned my head. She stopped me and she looked into my eyes with a look that absolutely burns in my memory right now and she said, `You didn't kiss me because I am black.' At that instant, I knew that she was right.
"I denied it. I made some lame excuse about it. But I was forced at that age to confront a small dark part of myself. I don't even know where it came from. This lady, who was devoting her whole life to me and my brother and sister, who loved me unconditionally, who had changed my diapers and fed me, and who was truly my second mother, that somehow she wasn't worthy of a goodbye kiss simply because of the color of her skin. ... I am not a lawyer. I don't know how difficult it would be to prosecute this or even care. I don't really care that anyone is ever prosecuted under this bill. But I do care that we take this moment in time, in history, to say that we are going to send a message ... to people who are filled with hate in this world, that Georgia has no room for hatred within its borders."
After the speech, the Georgia House erupted in applause from legislators of both parties and passed the hate-crimes bill.
360 N. Michigan Ave.
Chicago, Ill. 60601-3806
E-mail: [email protected]
Lauer is the author of two books, Reach for the Stars and Soar with the Eagles. For more information, go to www.chucklauer.com