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Crusade Against the Disciples of Hate

Bigotry: History will judge each of us by how we respond to the murder of James Byrd Jr.

June 14, 1998|JOHN LEWIS | Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a veteran civil rights leader, is the author of "Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement" (Simon & Schuster, 1998)

Some time during the night of Saturday, June 6, a tragic event took place near the small town of Jasper in eastern Texas. Three white men, two of whom belonged to white supremacist groups, are alleged to have killed James Byrd Jr., a black man, for no other reason than racial hatred.

The three men, reports said, first beat Byrd, then chained him to the back of a pickup and dragged him down a winding country road for two miles. While Byrd was being dragged down that dirt road, his head and right arm were severed.

The burden of Byrd's death does not lie only on the conscience of those three men. As a society, we, too, must bear this burden.

No one is born hating. There is a poster in my office that bears this fundamental truth. Under that statement is a picture of babies, babies of all colors. Each baby is a picture of innocence. The babies reach out to each other, oblivious to the fact that one child is black, one child is white, another is yellow, or red or brown.

Our society will change these babies before they become adults. In subtle and not so subtle ways, our society will teach these babies the prejudices and animosity that too many of us bear in our hearts. No one is born hating, but too many people grow up hating. Something is deeply wrong with the American psyche when our society teaches some of our children to do what three men are accused of doing to James Byrd. There must be a better way.

I believe, in my heart of hearts, that embracing the principle and practice of nonviolence is that better way. Only by preaching and teaching nonviolence can we overcome our prejudices and our anger to achieve the "beloved community," based on hope and justice, a community at peace with itself. That was the philosophy espoused by Mohandas K. Gandhi and taught by my mentor, Martin Luther King Jr. It was the guiding philosophy of a civil rights movement that changed the face of America and made it a better place.

Racism and violence are the lowest common denominators. They appeal to that which is most cowardly and most shameful within us. Once we accept violence, violence leads too easily to hatred and racism. Once we accept racism, we are too willing to use violence or kill. Unfortunately, the death of James Byrd is just one example of our nation's long history of racism and violence coming together for evil purpose.

To achieve the beloved community, we must teach not only tolerance, but acceptance and love. We must recognize the wonderful opportunity our nation's diversity presents. Every culture in our society offers its own contributions of art, industry and experience. Racial diversity should not be viewed as a liability, but as a source of strength. No other country has such a wealth and diversity of knowledge. We must embrace and love our diversity with the entirety of our being. Only then can we rid ourselves of the hatred and bigotry that killed James Byrd.

His murder should serve as a catalyst to unite people of all the races and ethnicities in our society. Every individual who learns of Byrd's death should be filled with a sense of righteous indignation. Each of us should be standing on soap boxes, stopping our neighbors, throwing open our windows and shouting "How dare this happen in my country!"

Just as the murder of three young men in Mississippi--Andy Goodman, Mickey Schwerner and James Cheney--galvanized our nation in the 1960s, the tragic death of James Byrd should strengthen our resolve to fight injustice and bigotry today. As a nation and a people, we must engage in a moral crusade against the disciples of hate. Each of us has an obligation, a mission and a mandate from the spirit of history and our fallen martyrs to work for hope and opportunity for all; to work for the beloved community.

The three accused of killing James Byrd Jr. are not the only ones whose actions will be judged. Since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, we have come a long way toward addressing the hatred and violence that plague our society. As the death of Byrd shows, we still have a long way to go. History will judge each of us by how we respond to what happened outside a small town in eastern Texas. If we take this opportunity to lay down the burden of race and embrace our fellow man, history will judge us well.

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