Friday, January 25, 2008

Harwich Residents Celebrate Diversity, In Dr. King’s Name

Cape Cod Chronical - By Allan Pollock

HARWICH — The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a civil rights leader, a preacher and an orator, but most of all, a teacher. And, as evidenced by a gathering in his name Monday, Dr. King’s lessons still reverberate in Harwich.

The Harwich “No Place For Hate” group held a commemoration of Dr. King’s life at town hall on the holiday that bears his name. “It’s not a shopping day. It’s a thinking day, I believe,” organizer John Bangert said. The day is a time to remember Dr. King’s contributions to our nation, and to take time to meet and embrace unfamiliar neighbors, particularly those who don’t look like ourselves, Bangert said.

Speaking before a full meeting room, State Rep. Sarah Peake, D-Provincetown, said Americans tend to find each others’ differences, creating a nation of special interest groups. Even on Cape Cod, people see themselves as residents of a particular town, or as year-round residents, or as other subsets of a community, she said. Instead of finding distinctions, Dr. King taught people to find commonalities. When we follow that lesson, “this place we call home becomes bigger and bigger every day,” Peake said.

The keynote speaker at the event was Harwich attorney William Crowell, who has been a member of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for the last 18 years. Two years ago, Crowell decided to visit the SPLC headquarters in Montgomery, Ala., which sits in what was the epicenter of the civil rights movement, less than a half mile from landmarks like the state capital, the Greyhound bus terminal, the Dexter Avenue Church, and the place where Rosa Parks was arrested for not yielding her bus seat to a white person. For a person looking to learn more about the civil rights movement, there is no better place than Montgomery, Crowell said.

The SPLC has two major approaches to fighting discrimination and hate: filing civil lawsuits against groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and distributing a “teaching tolerance” program for use in school systems around the country. The SPLC headquarters was burned down once, and the attorneys—who are paid by donations, not legal fees—regularly face death threats. To Crowell, who runs a practice of real estate law, it’s hard to imagine.
“These lawyers are very courageous,” he said.

Traveling alone to the Deep South was “a little bit intimidating,” Crowell said. In a Starbucks coffee shop at the Atlanta airport, he noticed a distinguished Black man who looked familiar. On a hunch, he later spoke to the woman with whom the man was speaking, and confirmed that it was civil rights leader and NAACP President Julian Bond. The man, she told Crowell, is her husband, and he was conferring with her about a speech he was about to give at the SPLC headquarters.

Later, Bond invited Crowell to share a ride to his hotel. Seated together in the back seat of the car, Crowell admitted he felt like Bond had nothing in common with him. “Here’s a white, New England conservative lawyer,” Crowell said with a chuckle. But the two did strike up a conversation, discussing whose alma mater had the more beautiful campus. The important lesson was that Bond made an effort to reach out to Crowell “to make me feel comfortable.”
Crowell also attended a service at the Dexter Avenue Church, where Dr. King was pastor. Seated on either side of Crowell were people of color. There, during the prayer portions of the service, as is the custom, the worshipers all held hands.

“That really had a powerful effect on me,” he said.
Seeing the SPLC headquarters, hearing Bond speak, and seeing the various civil rights landmarks in Montgomery all were powerful experiences, Crowell said. But in retrospect, the most meaningful parts of the trip were his encounters with strangers with whom he assumed he had little in common. In the end, building relationships with these strangers was the most meaningful part of the trip, and the part most germane to Dr. King’s message.

“That was a glimpse, for me, of what Martin Luther King was talking about: the promised land,” Crowell said.

After Crowell’s speech, the Harwich assembly held a moment of silence, and then heard a reading from the Quran from Harwich High School junior Amira Downes. Then, members of the community stood to offer their thoughts about Dr. King and the holiday. One of those to speak was Carolyn Crowell, attorney Crowell’s mother.

(Hey- Who in Harwich Remembers This event in 1964?)

Mrs. Crowell said that one of her sons, Timothy, (William’s older brother) was a member of the Harwich High School Class of 1964, the last group to make the traditional class trip to Washington, D.C. After seeing the sights, the students stopped to have lunch at a restaurant, and the manager pulled one of the chaperones aside. The restaurant, he explained, would be unable to serve some of the Harwich students because of their skin color.
“And the entire class rose up and walked out,” Mrs. Crowell said.

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