2003 Profile in Courage Award recipient Dan Ponder with Caroline Kennedy.

Background

In March 2000, the Georgia legislature was engaged in a bitter debate over a bill to strengthen penalties for hate crimes. The house had just voted 83-82 to shelve the bill when Dan Ponder, Jr., a Republican from a conservative district in southwestern Georgia, rose to speak. He had told no one of his plans to support the legislation. In a searching, deeply personal speech that touched on the many faces of difference and hatred, Ponder put his support for the bill in the context of an encounter he had had as a child with his devoted, longtime family caretaker: “One day, when I was about 12 or 13, I was leaving for school. As I was walking out the door she turned to kiss me goodbye. And for some reason, I turned my head. She stopped me and she looked into my eyes with a look that absolutely burns in my memory right now and she said, ‘You didn’t kiss me because I am black.’ At that instant, I knew that she was right. I denied it. I made some lame excuse about it. But I was forced at that age to confront a small dark part of myself… Hate is all around us. It takes shape and form in ways that are somehow so small that we don’t even recognize them to begin with, until they somehow become acceptable to us. It is up to us, as parents and leaders in our communities, to take a stand and to say loudly and clearly that this is just not acceptable.” Ponder’s speech struck a sensitive chord with his fellow lawmakers. The house, Republicans and Democrats alike, gave him two standing ovations and subsequently voted 116-49 in favor of the bill. Soon after he gave his eloquent speech, Ponder retired from the Georgia legislature and returned to private business.