In 1930 in Marion, Indiana, two lifeless black bodies in ragged and tattered clothes hung from separate tree branches, their faces and bodies beaten and bloody. Below them, a separate crowd of well-dressed white men and women stood smiling and looking at the corpses. Not one person had an expression of sorrow or remorse – not a single hint of regret.
Such racism, the blatant disregard for human dignity, persists because one group holds tight to its power, refusing another the opportunity to thrive.
In order to retain their position of strength, white Americans have suppressed other races, including African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics and Asians. Suppression has included legislation that segregated the races, as well as prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory actions that have been passed down through generations. The legacy of slavery, the most notorious and paralyzing form of suppression, created a cycle of poverty, educational inequality, degrading stereotypes, ignorance and a refusal by some to acknowledge the problem.
I have felt the pain of others laughing and talking about me, making me want to hide and run away from the shame. Because I can relate to the ugliness of racism, I am committed to treating everyone I meet with respect and kindness. Although our nation has come a long way from the days of slavery and lynchings, we need to continue to educate children and adults about discrimination and use the media to spread the message of acceptance. We need to change the way people think because racism will only end when everyone chooses love over hate, respect over shame and unity over division.
On April 9, 1939, an act of astounding bravery took place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Denied the right to perform in Constitution Hall because of her race, African American contralto Marian Anderson sang in front of a crowd of 75,000 people, white and black. After singing "My Country ‘Tis of Thee," Marian noticed a shift in the crowd. Just as an object at rest stays at rest until another object forces it to move, Marian’s singing had become a catalyst for change. She sang as a proud American, not as a black woman, using nothing more than the power of her voice to connect people of every color. To end racism today, we, too, must use our voices to inspire people to move toward a common identity.
Editor's note: This commentary was adapted from the first place winner in the 2016 Hildene Lincoln Essay Competition for Vermont eighth graders. It was selected from a total of 237 entries from 39 Vermont schools, as far north as St. Albans and as far south as Bennington. This text was condensed and revised slightly for broadcast. You can find the original text and more information about the competition at Hildene.org or on the Hildene Facebook page.