I was born in September of 1948, a 2 pound, 3 ounce baby, three months premature, given a slim to none possibility of survival. The only reason I had any chance at all can be credited to the actions of the nurse on call, Marguerite Nelligan, who rushed me to an incubator, where I remained for 90 days.
Marguerite, her sister, Lenora, and their parents coincidently shared their home on Avon Street in Ansonia, Conn., with my family (we lived upstairs). They were wonderful people and even after we moved two years after my birth, Marguerite was a frequent visitor (we lived upstairs once again, this time in a nursery school).
One of her visits five years after my birth stands out vividly in my mind. Marguerite and my mom were having a warm conversation in the kitchen of our home when they were joined by a woman named Loretta. She was a native of South Carolina who had married one of my dad’s colleagues at the American Brass Co. and relocated to Connecticut. Somehow the topic of blood transfusions came up and Loretta stated that she would “rather die than receive the blood of an African-American (I think she used a different term).” She said in a strong Southern accent that there should be a law prohibiting it. When my mom and Marguerite vehemently objected, I remember her saying, “If God meant them to be equal, he would have not made their skin color different.”
Loretta’s racist rant was so disturbing that I remember it clearly 64 years later. I made a personal pledge that day that I would spend my life fighting that type of race-based hatred and denigration. I believe that, both personally and professionally, I have never wavered from that pledge. It’s not that I am an extraordinary person, rather I believe it’s what we are all morally obligated to do.
I grew up in an era where the KKK and the atrocities of the Nazis were seen mostly on newsreels. We had beaten the Nazis in World War II and struck down the KKK during the Civil Rights movement. It appeared that we had come a long way from the dark days of hatred, racism, and anti-Semitism. Sure, racism still existed but we were making definite progress, or so I thought. I was wrong.
The events of Charlottesville, Va., this past week demonstrated that the neo-Nazi, white supremacist and KKK movements in this country are growing and at an alarming rate. I am sure that you, like me, watching thousands of neo-Nazis and KKK sympathizers carrying torches in last Friday night’s demonstration and yelling anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi slogans sent chills down your spine.
Saturday was even worse, when the demonstrators marched, ready for a fight, carrying Confederate and Nazi flags, some even donning Trump “Make America Great Again” hats and most armed with shields, guns and clubs. They marched triumphantly while alternating between chanting Sieg Heil and Sieg Trump, as well as “don’t let Jews take our jobs.” It was inevitable that the alt-right groups that were dressed and armed and obviously looking for a fight would end up clashing with those assembled to protest their presence. Ultimately a young woman, Heather Heyer, was murdered by a hateful, ultra-right, young man. It was extremely telling that her last Facebook post said, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
For every other elected public official, taking a strong moral stance against the KKK, white supremacists and the neo-Nazis would have been easy. For our president, it was not. He had enjoyed near-unanimous support among these groups and getting him to repudiate them was a hard pill for him to swallow. Initially, he blamed “both sides.” Two days later, he called out by name the hate groups in scripted remarks that were written by his staff. Finally, on Tuesday, in what will go down as one of the most remarkable press conferences ever held, he went back to blaming the “alt-left” in angry hateful tones.
When President Trump revealed his true feelings, it was outrage. But unlike most Americans who are equally outraged and saddened by the sight of neo-Nazis and white supremacists marching boldly down our streets, Trump was livid against the press and at the counter demonstrators. He claimed there were “many good people” marching with the neo-Nazis. If there was a “good person” in the crowd, once they saw the hateful people around them and heard the chants wouldn’t they go home? Neo-Nazis, KKK members and white supremacists are NOT good people, Mr. Trump, and not deserving of your protection. David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the KKK, understood the significance of the president’s statements and thanked him publicly for his “honesty and courage.”
I asked Lanny Gilbert, former town judge and present candidate for Yorktown town supervisor, how he felt about this in light of the fact that his dad fought in WWII. His response was telling: “My dad risked his life to rid the world of the Nazis; it would break his heart to see them marching en masse in our cities defended by our president.”
Let me leave you with this thought: imagine that we are confronted by a similar march in our hometown. Neo-Nazis, KKK members and white supremacists are carrying signs and chanting anti-Semitic and other hateful slogans down Underhill Avenue, while others are assembling to oppose them. We have to decide which group we would join. It’s crystal clear which group President Trump would choose. I would stand shoulder to shoulder with Marguerite Nelligan and my late mother in opposing the hate groups. Would you join us?