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02 October, 2010

RACIAL DISCRIMINATION: MY LETTER EXPLAINS CALL FOR AN APOLOGY

Count me among the majority who at one time felt it absolutely unnecessary to apologize for the many
transgressions of past generations, particularly when it came to matters of physical abuse at the hands of those in authority, denial of rights and blatant racial discrimination.


I justified my almost hollier-than-thou attitude with the fact that I never physically abused anyone, actively denied anyone of their rights or knowingly discriminated against anyone.  Heck, there have even been times when I went out of my way to be humane in the treatment of others and demonstrably charitable when the occasion called for it.

If a particular situation was bad enough, let those responsible apologize for it if need be, but leave me out of it!  I'm alright, Charlie!

But, you know what?  I was not raised that way.  While it is very easy to distance myself from the wrongs of the society in which I live, I confess to the constant necessity to remind myself of the Christian themes of mercy and forgiveness and the very real need for genuine compassion toward others.

We are not disconnected from history or the rest of the world.  There is no escaping the fact that we are part of a world-wide community and as such we must accept full responsibility for what that membership entails -- both good and bad. 

There is no out of sight out of mind excuse than can work for mistakes and injustices of the past. The connection to wrongdoing is there and if we have compassion at all for those who have been adversely affected, we will take responsibility to apologize if not make amends.

I, and so many of my school chums, were innocently privy to something that would later in life be labelled as racial discrimination in my hometown of Dresden in the 1940s and '50s.  As a White kid, discrimination was never an issue in the classroom, the Boy Scout hall, the ball diamond or skating rink.  I cannot speak for my Black friends, however, because it was a different story for them and members of their families who were being denied certain civil rights which have been well documented in recent Wrights Lane posts and extensive news reports of the period.

It was not until well into my teens that I began to realize the full impact that racial discrimination was having on my Black friends.  It has taken me almost 60 years to finally act on my conscience, to say to the Black citizens of Dresden, past and present (the Burnetts, Hansons, Handsors, Carters, Wallaces, Lambkins, Cooks, Brownings, Ropers, McCorkles, Crosbys, Solomans, Grineages, Rykmans, Talbots, Scotts, Browns, Tanners, Melbournes, Travises, Dudleys, et al: "Once again, on behalf of my forefathers and respective generations, I am truly sorry!"

There are those who insist that an apology is not necessary and are critical of me for bringing this all to light yet again.  There is a prevailing misconception that apologies imply some personal culpability that is to be avoided.  One critic suggests that half the current town of Dresden today were not yet born in the 1940s and '50s, but hopefully this does not mean that we ignore, or write off, the other half of the population that lived in and through the era in question.

It is true that people of colour today live in a world of equal (almost?) opportunity and have risen to great heights in the fields of medicine, politics, religion, entertainment and sports, but the White segment of the population cannot claim any credit for the transition...Blacks have fought for every bit of what they have achieved.  To their credit, they did it in spite of us and injustices of the past.  They have truly overcome.

I took all of the foregoing into consideration when submitting the following letter to the Chatham Daily News this week (published Friday, Oct. 1st.).  I owed it to the Black folk of my generation, if none other...And to my White brethren as well. 

May we be forgiven, for we knew not what we did.  Could it be that some of us still don't?
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
September 26, 2010

The Chatham News,
Letter to The Editor

Re: Thoughts on racial discrimination from first-hand experience

Dear Sir:

I noted with interest last month several historical flashback features casting the spotlight on the racial discrimination issue that existed in the Town of Dresden at one time. The articles by local historians were obviously in conjunction with the unveiling of an Ontario Heritage Trust plaque at Uncle Tom's Cabin commemorating the efforts of civil rights activist Hugh R. Burnett and the National Unity Association, some 60-65 years after the fact.

When it comes to history-related topics I have found that people tend to develop their own interpretations based on a degree of personal comfort. Current beliefs, social trends and racial background cannot help but play an influential role in how we perceive a past event or period in history. The passage of time does soften harsh reality in many cases. Then too, human nature often dictates suppression, or turning a blind eye to certain historical facts that tend to complicate or compromise beliefs and remembrances. Certainly there is a prevailing apathy and disinterest that accompanies the various traditional views of history.

I recently uncovered an old National Film Board of Canada production which sought answers to the long-standing colour-bar racial discrimination issue in my aforementioned hometown of Dresden in 1954. The 30-minute film graphically illustrated the prevailing concerns and attitudes of the period, some of which were quite disturbing by today's societal standards. As an active "blogger", I reviewed the film and asked readers of my computer web sites if they thought an official apology of some kind was due our Black friends and neighbours of that period. To date I have had disappointing, but not too surprising, minimal response from Dresden readers in particular.

It goes without saying that the racial discrimination issue was and is a sensitive subject in this small, tightly-knit community. A generation has passed, as has the colour-bar issue (thanks to legislation and litigation of the 1950s). Life has carried on, a little more freely and humanely for some; others never fully understanding what all the fuss was about in the first place. The matter is, as they say, history.

My worry is that a serious racial wrong has never been properly and publicly acknowledged by the town and that Black people of that troubled period deserve an official apology for the rights that were denied them and members of their families, many of whom have long since passed away. To me it is a classic case of man's ignorant inhumanity to man. I do not condemn nor condone the eight or nine Dresden business owners who denied service to Black people in the first half of the last century; they were otherwise good citizens who simply held fast to what they believed were "rights" of their own, as prejudicial as they may have been.

As one who was born and raised in Dresden back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, I share the real shame with those who chose to ignore racial discrimination in their midst, who did not open their church doors and hearts, who would boycott certain businesses and issue life-altering death threats.

What I humbly suggest now to all Dresdenites and other residents of the Kent Country area, is to take a moment to put themselves in the shoes of their Black neighbours and to ask how they would react under similar circumstances if roles were reversed and what it would mean to them and the memory of late loved ones, if their community collectively said "we are sorry!" There is no better way to understand a situation than to assume the yoke of another.

Any apology which is sincere and real always makes things better, heals wounds and resentment, and strengthens and lengthens relationships. I have felt "sorry" for first-hand deep hurt and embarrassment of a teenager ever since my friend was refused a butterscotch milkshake in a Dresden restaurant one hot summer evening 56 years ago and I've never known how to convey those feelings. The typical mistaken assumption in racial relations is that if you are silent long enough, and ignore an issue long enough, the matter will eventually go away. Make no mistake about it, however, there are many "matters" lingering slightly under the surface in today's society and will continue to simmer there for generations to come.

To my friend now, and all others whose rights were similarly denied and thusly relegated to second-class citizen status because of the colour of their skin, I for one sincerely apologize. I want to help make centuries of hurt and resentment go away, if ever so minimally.

How about the rest of Dresden? How about the municipal Council of Chatham-Kent acting on behalf of all citizens of the community in issuing a long overdue and much deserved apology?

Better late than never to heal old wounds and injustices. Wouldn't we all, with our varying degrees of skin tone, feel much better for having been included in a precedent-setting act of conciliation for all the world to witness? I think our forefathers would be the first to thank us and we could all rest just a little easier.

Respectfully,
Dick Wright

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