December 5, 1998
Collectively, they are the oil that keeps our peace lamps burning
by Rep Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD-7)
(12/5/98 Baltimore AFRO-American Newspaper)
As we approach the universal season of peace, the forces of hatred and love continue their daily struggle on the streets of America. The tragic lynchings of James Byrd in Texas and Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, as well as the continuing arson attacks upon American churches and synagogues, have appalled and alarmed our nation and the entire world.
I support an enhanced Federal initiative against bias-motivated crimes; but an effective response to hatred and violence cannot be limited to improved law enforcement. Hate crimes attack entire communities. Like a virus, they spread fear and anger, inviting a cycle of retaliation and counter-retaliation.
We can and must win the struggle against hate crimes within our own communities. Each of us must make a personal commitment to peace if we are to protect our families. Working with our neighbors of all races and faith traditions, we have the power to change the future by stopping criminal acts of hatred before they occur.
Early this year, for example, community leaders in Annapolis were confronted by an alarming prospect. They learned that a Klu Klux Klan “protest” of Black History Month had been scheduled to occur on February 7th near the Thurgood Marshall monument on Lawyers’ Mall. Government intelligence sources had determined that the Klans real objective was to provoke violence and gain media attention for its distorted world view.
The danger of violence was quite real. Racial tensions have plagued Annapolis in the past. Approximately one-third of her 30,000 residents are African Americans, many of whom do not share in the general affluence of the larger community. Nevertheless, community leaders refuse to allow the tensions of everyday life to distract them from their shared goals.
When they were informed by law enforcement authorities about the Klan’s pending invasion and motives, a response network of interfaith groups immediately formed. Under the leadership of community leaders like Pastor Victor O. Johnson and Carl Snowden, a coalition developed an alternative “Unity Rally” designed to draw the general public away from the Klan gathering and toward a constructive, peaceful community event. By February 7th, Annapolis was ready for the Klan’s arrival.
In response to calls from the organizing committee, Maryland Governor Glendening, Senator Mikulski and I marched and participated in the alternative Unity Rally, but it was the people of Annapolis who were the real heroes that day. Conflict mediators trained by the Anne Arundel County Conflict Resolution Center worked in teams to calm the crowds, often risking their own safety. When the day was done, the people of Annapolis had deprived the Klan of the hate-based, violent confrontation it had hoped to spark.
I will never forget two black men, Mr. Larry Griffin and Mr. Antonio Brown, who linked hands with other volunteers in disciplined non-violence, protecting four white supremacists from the violence which they, themselves, had attempted to instigate. “This day is about peace,” Mr. Brown declared when asked about his dangerous role. “We’re not going to allow ourselves to turn into the same monsters who have come to our town.”
Love – not hatred – prevailed in Annapolis that day, just as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., believed it would. Everyone who participated in the Annapolis Unity Rally will remember the sea of black, white, yellow, red and brown faces marching together toward St. Anne’s Church – good people risking harm to themselves in order to stand up for peace and justice.
The people of a small, Southern town came of age on that cold February day. Together, we transformed the threat of violent confrontation into a day of racial and religious reconciliation.
The danger was not defeated, however. It was only deferred. Hate groups are using the power of modern technology and clever public relations strategies to “repackage” their age-old message of hate for a new, younger audience. The danger they pose to our communities and children is as serious as it ever has been.
Annapolis avoided that danger last February largely because people from all walks of life had spent years learning how to trust each other. Her people chose peace, showing the world that our ultimate defense against hate crimes is the value we place upon our own diversity and unity as a community.
Each of us can become a peacemaker simply by participating in similar, grass roots efforts here in Baltimore. “Congregations Pairing and Caring,” for example, pairs 24 religious congregations from diverse cultures, faith traditions and racial groups to build relationships and cooperate in social action initiatives. Concrete achievements of this program include its well-respected “Youth and Violence Initiative.”
“A Call to Community” seeks to engage volunteer participants in “an honest conversation about race, reconciliation and responsibility.” Participants in small “study circles” are encouraged to share their experiences in our racially-divided society, build trust and, ultimately, work together to improve our community. The President’s Initiative on Race identified the program as one of ten “promising practices” which could help to bridge the racial divisions of America.
Anyone wishing further information about either of these worthwhile community efforts can call Interfaith Action for Racial Justice – the programs nonprofit, multiracial sponsoring group – at 410-889-8333. By participating in programs such as these, or by creating other opportunities for friendship, service and mutual understanding, each of us contributes to a more peaceful community.
Every honest conversation and shared moment of community service we create is a prayer for peace. Collectively, they are the oil which keeps our peace lamps burning.
–The Honorable Elijah E. Cummings represents the 7th Congressional District of Maryland in the United States House of Representatives.