Dan Ponder, Jr.
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.
Former Georgia Governor Roy Barnes, Former South Carolina Governor David Beasley and Former Georgia State Representative Dan Ponder, Jr. Honored with John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award
Boston, MA, May 12, 1003 — Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy today presented former Governor Roy Barnes (D) of Georgia, former Governor David Beasley (R) of South Carolina, and former State Representative Dan Ponder, Jr. (R) of Georgia with the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award at a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
Former Georgia Governor Roy Barnes and former South Carolina Governor David Beasley were honored with the prestigious award for political courage for the decisions of conscience each man made when seeking to resolve his state’s divisive political debate over the public display of the Confederate battle emblem. Dan Ponder, Jr., a one-time Georgia State Representative, was honored with the Profile in Courage Award for his act of political and personal courage that led to the passage of Georgia’s first hate-crimes legislation.
“Today’s honorees’ devotion to our country’s fundamental values has been expressed in courageous deeds and words that are an example to all of us,” said Senator Kennedy. “We hope that this award will continue to encourage young men and women to enter public service and demonstrate their own dedication to high principle.”
“President Kennedy greatly admired those political leaders who had the courage to make decisions of conscience without fear of the consequences,” said Caroline Kennedy, president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. “Governor Barnes and Governor Beasley demonstrated outstanding leadership in asking their constituents to reconsider the symbol of the Confederate battle emblem. Their courage in stepping forward to address this controversial and divisive issue should not go unrecognized.
“Georgia State Representative Dan Ponder proves that one voice can truly make a difference,” Ms. Kennedy continued. “By articulating his personal experience, and finding the courage to do so, he empowered others to act courageously and do the right thing. Today, his words against hate continue to inspire people around the globe. It is an honor to recognize and applaud these three outstanding individuals whose unselfish contributions to public service and courageous acts of leadership have advanced their states and enriched our nation.”
The John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award is presented annually to an elected official who has withstood strong opposition from constituents, interest groups or adversaries to follow what he or she believes is the right course of action. Past recipients of the award include former U.S. President Gerald Ford, U.S. Senator John McCain, U.S. Senator Russell Feingold, U.S. Representative John Lewis, California State Senator Hilda Solis, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, and America’s public servants who responded to the tragic events of September 11.
The award is named for President Kennedy’s 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, which recounts the stories of eight U.S. senators who risked their careers to fight for what they believed in. The Kennedy Library Foundation created the Profile in Courage Award in 1989 to honor President Kennedy’s commitment and contribution to public service. It is presented in May in celebration of President Kennedy’s May 29th birthday.
Throughout the South, the Confederate battle emblem continues to generate intense political conflict, pitting those who see it as a symbol of slavery and racism against those who see it as a tribute to southern tradition and history. During the past decade, several southern states have become embroiled in flag controversies, and a number of southern public officials have attempted in various ways to shrink or eliminate the presence of the Confederate emblem from state officialdom.
Former Governor Roy Barnes (D-Georgia)
In 1956, less than two years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Georgia state legislature adopted a new state flag bearing the Confederacy battle emblem. In January 2001, Georgia Governor Roy Barnes sought to diminish the presence of the divisive symbol. He won the legislature’s approval for a new state flag, which would dramatically reduce the Confederate emblem’s visual presence on the flag. Barnes went ahead with the flag change despite the likelihood that it would alienate his rural white supporters, who his polls showed were vehemently opposed to the change by a margin of 3-1.
After the legislature adopted the new flag, those who were opposed to the change erupted in a fit of outrage at Barnes. According to news accounts, supporters of the Confederate battle emblem staged protests at his public appearances, disrupted meetings, and threatened his family, and even his life. Barnes’s opponent, state legislator Sonny Perdue, made the flag a central campaign issue and promised voters a public referendum on the new flag. While the flag controversy was not the only issue in the race, it was likely a decisive one and contributed to Barnes’s defeat in 2002.
Former Governor David Beasley (R-South Carolina)
Since the early 1960s, South Carolina flew the Confederate flag over its state house, not as a state flag but to some as a symbol of South Carolina’s history and to others as a symbol of defiance of the civil rights movement. In 1996, Governor Beasley was compelled to tackle the controversial flag issue. A series of church burnings and the racially motivated shooting of three black teenagers caused grave concern about racial division across the state. As a first step toward uniting South Carolinians, Governor Beasley delivered a televised speech in which he asked his fellow citizens to help pressure lawmakers to remove the flag.
He said: “I’m asking that we come together as a people, to honor and understand each other, to forge a ministry of reconciliation that extends to every citizen…The Bible tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. It is time for the races to compromise on the Confederate flag to show Judeo-Christian love that will bring the races together.”
Governor Beasley worked toward compromise, suggesting the flag, once removed from the dome, be placed by a Confederate memorial on state grounds. But he was met with hostility, protests, and lawsuits, it was immediate and extreme, and from those of his own party. During his term, the Confederate flag continued to wave above the statehouse and he was defeated by an opponent who pledged not to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse dome. But today, the Confederate flag has come down from the South Carolina statehouse, a change made possible by Governor Beasley’s first crucial call to South Carolinians for unity and tolerance.
In November 1996, two years into his first term as governor of South Carolina, Republican David Beasley addressed the state in a televised speech and called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House dome. In the spirit of compromise, he proposed that the flag be flown beside a Confederate soldiers’ monument in front of the capitol building, resurrecting a proposal that had died in the House two years before.
Campaigning for governor two years earlier, Beasley said he would keep the flag above the dome. His reversal split the South Carolina Republican Party in two and generated thousands of angry letters. “Keep the Flag, Ban Beasley” bumper stickers were widely circulated, characteristic of the outcry that followed. While Beasley was the Republican incumbent in a Republican state, who presided over a booming economy, many political observers noted that his campaign for re-election was not helped by his position on the flag. In 1998, Beasley sought a second term as governor but was defeated by Democrat Jim Hodges, who promised flag supporters he would not lead the charge to take down the flag.
Former State Representative Dan Ponder, Jr. (R- Georgia)
On March 16, 2000, the Georgia legislature was in a bitter debate over the proposed enactment of a hate-crimes law. The House had just voted 83-82 to shelve the bill when Representative Ponder, a conservative Republican from rural southwestern Georgia who might have been expected to mount a vigorous opposition to the bill, stood up and gave an impassioned speech defending it. He had told no one of his plans to support the legislation. Representative Ponder gave his fellow lawmakers a deeply personal account of his childhood rejection of a family caretaker because she was black. In his speech, he said, “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…I pledged to myself…that never, ever again would I look in the mirror and know that I had kept silent and let hate or prejudice or indifference negatively impact a person's life, even if I didn't know them.” At the conclusion of the speech, the House, Republicans and Democrats alike, gave Representative Ponder two standing ovations and subsequently voted 116-49 to outlaw and punish all hate crimes. Georgia Governor Roy Barnes signed the measure into law at a synagogue scarred by swastika-painting vandals.
Described by one recipient as the “Nobel in Government,” the Profile in Courage Award is accompanied by a sterling-silver lantern representing a beacon of hope. The lantern was designed by Edwin Schlossberg, Inc. and crafted by Tiffany & Co.
Roy Barnes, David Beasley, and Dan Ponder, Jr. were chosen as recipients of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation’s prestigious award for political courage by a distinguished bipartisan committee of national, political, and community leaders. John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, chairs the twelve-member Profile in Courage Award Committee. Committee members are U.S. Senator Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi); Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund; Al Hunt, Executive Editor of the Wall Street Journal; U.S. Representative Nancy Johnson (R-Connecticut); Elaine Jones, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; Caroline Kennedy, president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation; U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts); Paul G. Kirk, Jr., chairman of the board of directors of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation; David McCullough, presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author; U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine); and Patricia M. Wald, former judge of the International Criminal Tribunal at the Hague. John Shattuck, chief executive officer of the Kennedy Library Foundation, staffs the Committee. Mr. Shattuck is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor and a former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic.
In selecting a recipient, the Profile in Courage Award Committee considers elected officials who have demonstrated the kind of political courage described by John F. Kennedy in Profiles in Courage. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Kennedy wrote:
“The true democracy, living and growing and inspiring, puts its faith in the people – faith that the people will not simply elect men who will represent their views ably and faithfully, but also elect men who will exercise their conscientious judgment – faith that the people will not condemn those whose devotion to principle leads them to unpopular courses, but will reward courage, respect honor and ultimately recognize right.”
Past recipients of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award are former U.S. Congressman Carl Elliott, Sr. of Alabama; former U.S. Congressman Charles Weltner of Georgia; former Governor of Connecticut Lowell Weicker, Jr.; former Governor of New Jersey James Florio; U.S. Congressman Henry Gonzalez of Texas; former U.S. Congressman Michael Synar of Oklahoma; former Calhoun County, Georgia School Superintendent Corkin Cherubini; Circuit Court Judge of Montgomery County, Alabama Charles Price; Garfield County, Montana Attorney Nickolas Murnion; co-recipients U.S. Senators John McCain of Arizona and Russell Feingold of Wisconsin; California State Senator Hilda Solis; former U.S. President Gerald Ford; United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan; and former Palos Heights, Illinois Mayor Dean Koldenhoven. Special Profile in Courage Awards have been presented to the Irish Peacemakers – eight political leaders of Northern Ireland and the American chairman of the peace talks – in recognition of the extraordinary political courage they demonstrated in negotiating the historic Good Friday Peace Agreement; legendary civil rights leader and U.S. Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) for lifetime achievement; and America’s public servants who demonstrated extraordinary courage and heroism in response to the tragic events of September 11.
The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum is a presidential library administered by the National Archives and Records Administration and supported, in part, by the Kennedy Library Foundation, a non-profit organization. The Kennedy Library and the Kennedy Library Foundation seek to promote, through educational and community programs, a greater appreciation and understanding of American politics, history, and culture, the process of governing and the importance of public service.
Ann Scanlon (617) 514-1662
To the family of President John F. Kennedy, members of the Selection Committee, Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am so very honored and humbled to accept the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award today. My very first political memory is hearing the news of his tragic death. At the time, I did not exactly understand all the reactions on our 4th grade playground, nor the implications of the event.
The first political book I read as a teenager was "Profiles in Courage". It was a model to me of how political life should be, always striving to do what was right rather than what was politically expedient.
I would like to thank my friends who are here today. You will never know what your presence here and your support throughout my life has meant. I look forward to telling each of you that personally.
As with all people who stand tall at a time in their lives, they often stand on the shoulders of those that went before them. I grew up in some of the darkest days of segregation, but I am blessed with a mother, who is here today, and a father, who is here in spirit, that always taught me that every human being has a right to live with respect and dignity, regardless of their color or station in life.
I stand on the shoulders of my brother and sister, who always encouraged my political interests. I especially stand on the shoulders of Mary Lou, my wife of 25 years, who never questions any stand I take except to ask, "Is it the right thing to do?" How blessed I am to have her by my side.
And finally, I stand on the shoulders of my two daughters. Catherine, who will graduate from Agnes Scott College next weekend, attends one of the most culturally diverse campuses in the country. Elizabeth, who is finishing her second year at Washington & Lee University in Virginia, walks under the long shadows of George Washington and Robert E. Lee.
Individually, they move easily among those that are different. They do not recognize color as a condition for friendship. They value those friends with different ethnic and religious backgrounds. They are not afraid to open themselves up to those that are different. They give us hope for the future. They are my own heroes.
I never campaigned about hate crimes. It is not a big issue in the district I represented. It was and still is a terribly divisive subject that people on both sides of the aisle were afraid of politically. I knew for some reason, however, that this was an issue on which I would speak if I had the chance. I didn't write my speech until the morning of the debate, but parts of it had been in my head for 30 years.
As the bill was called and debated, it slowly slid into the type of partisan debate that I had come to dislike so much. Blacks spoke with anger about the early civil rights days. Whites spoke with anger about creating a special class of people. It was about us versus them. As the rhetoric became more heated, no one was listening to anyone. Votes were decided before most of the members had gone onto the House floor.
People were speaking from their heart, but in most instances they were speaking only to those exactly like them. In my own heart, I knew that for some inexplicable reason, it was my time. If I were going to be the kind of politician I had always wanted to be, then I had to speak. I knew that there would be no one else.
I spoke as the most unlikely of Southerners about how racism and intolerance had affected my own life. With 9 Great-Great-Great Grandfathers that had fought for the Confederacy, I had no apologies to make for my Southern heritage. But as a human being, I knew what was right and what was wrong.
I spoke of the black lady who helped raise me. She showed me how to love unconditionally regardless of the color of one's skin. She died many years ago, but I have this vision of Mary Ward and my father sitting side by side in heaven with two big grins on their faces.
What an incredible gift I have been given! Through the power of one speech, meant only to be heard by 180 people that I knew, my life has been transformed. My eyes have been opened to the plight of so many others around the world.
I received over 25,000 letters and emails in the first year after that speech. Each of these letters had a story they wanted to tell.
I began to realize that this is a never-ending war being fought in a hundred different battles. I had letters from groups that were upset about not being included in my speech. I received letters from those who have views of whites, or southerners, or Republicans that had somehow been shattered.
I heard of people being ostracized by family, isolated by community, and forsaken by churches. People who are more alone than you and I can ever comprehend.
Through the power of one speech, I have been able to speak to our country in wonderfully diverse situations. I am able to see first hand how far we have come, and how much farther we have to go.
I heal through my own journey. I celebrate all the diversity that I can find. What an amazing opportunity I have been given to work for and seek justice not only for blacks, gays, Jews, and women, but for any group that finds itself a victim of intolerance, even White Anglo Saxon Protestants.
I hope that everyone understands, as I do, that my words are not my own. They are the words of a wonderful black woman that impacted my life. I heal by honoring her life and her goodness as a human being.
I am a Christian. The Bible says that we are all created in God's image. Is it so hard for me to believe that includes all of us? Those of another faith have similar teachings.
I am an American. Our Declaration of Independence states clearly "All Men are Created Equal". Not just white people, or men, or the wealthy, or heterosexuals, but all men are created equal. As Americans, is it so hard for us to accept that?
I am a human being. All people have generally lived by some variation of the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Is it so hard for us to live by this rule, regardless of our color, or religion or background?
I received a similar message from hundreds of people around the world. Loosely translated the message states that if you change the life of one person it is the same as changing the whole world.
One individual won't change the whole world. However, we can begin by opening our eyes to our neighbors, talking with them instead of at them, and believing the best rather than the worst about them. We need to learn about each other, our cultures and beliefs.
Those present today may not know the person seated next to them. We may never see them again in our lifetime. However, we have something in common with them as a human being. We can learn from each other. Hate should have no place in our lives. We fight that battle one person at a time.
I am just an average person, who one day had the opportunity to say what I believed. This world is full of people like me, people who have to make choices about right and wrong, and people who have to make unpopular decisions just because it is the right thing to do.
For all of the unsung heroes, who never get credit for their hard decisions, but find the courage to say proudly that every human being has the right to live with dignity and respect, I accept this award on your behalf.
Remarks delivered by former Georgia State Representative Dan Ponder, Jr. on accepting the 2003 Profile in Courage Award, May 12, 2003.
I'm honored to be here today with the winners of this year's Profile In Courage Award. Their devotion to our country's fundamental values has been expressed in courageous deeds and words that are an example to all of us.
This is the 14th year of the award. It was inspired by President Kennedy's book, and our goal is to encourage contemporary political leaders to be more willing to take on difficult issues and demonstrate the kind of political courage that my brother so admired.
We also hope that the award will continue to encourage young men and women to enter public service and demonstrate their own dedication to high principle.
In his book, President Kennedy told the stories of courageous political leaders who made difficult decisions and did the right thing under heavy pressure, and often at great risk to their own careers, and my brother would be especially proud of the winners this year. They rose to the challenge of prejudice and bigotry despite risks. They led by example and called on their constituents and their colleagues to reach for the best in themselves.
Over half a century ago, the modern civil rights movement began the historic and courageous journey, that took it into the armed forces, into the schools and classrooms of America - into voting booths to exercise the most fundamental freedom of our democracy - into local stores asking for the simple decency of eating at the lunch counter.
As they did so, the citizens in communities across the country had to look deeper into themselves. To their credit, most Americans responded with outrage as searing images of injustice poured out of television sets in living rooms across the nation. Sadly, there were those who could not let go of the past. Governor Barnes and Governor Beasley dared to challenge them so that their states could take a better and fairer path to the future.
The Confederate Battle Flag flying above the Capitol domes in both Georgia and South Carolina was a symbol of that past, and African Americans saw it as a continuing condemnation of them to the back of the bus.
Both Governors summoned the courage to meet the issue head on and tried to encourage a compromise. Governor Barnes skillfully obtained a major change in the Georgia flag. In South Carolina, Governor Beasley proposed that the Confederate Flag no longer fly atop the Capitol, but at a Confederate memorial on the Capitol grounds.
Both Governors endured a firestorm of outrage that divided their party and divided the citizens of their states. Protests erupted, and they were threatened with violence. Opponents made the flag a central issue in the next election. Opponents of the change turned out in large numbers on Election Day, as had been predicted, and both Governors were defeated for re-election.
Governor Beasley told the people of South Carolina, "Any banner we fly over the Capitol, where decisions about our children's future are made, should be one that everyone can claim as their own."
Governor Roy Barnes told his fellow political leaders in Georgia, "When the dust settles and controversy fades, will history record you as just another politician or as a person of conscience? The truth of the matter is, we only have one flag. It's the flag of the United States of America. I believe I'll stick with it."
Our third profile in courage this year is Dan Ponder, who electrified the Georgia legislature with a courageous speech against hate and prejudice. At the time, the Georgia legislature was considering hate crimes legislation, and as a conservative Republican his colleagues expected him to oppose it. But he has a story to tell about his own life, and he summoned the courage to tell it.
He spoke of a young black woman who had helped to raise him and take care of him since he was born. She loved him as if he was her own son, and he thought of her as his second mother. One day when he was 12 or 13, he turned his head away when she tried to kiss him as he went out to play. She stopped him and looked into his eyes with a look burned into his memory and said, "You didn't kiss me because I am black."
He denied it but told his colleagues from the well of the Georgia State House that "I have lived with the shame and memory of my betrayal of Mary Ward's love for me. I pledged to myself then and I repledged to myself the day I buried her that never, ever again would I look in the mirror and know that I had kept silent, and let hate or prejudice or indifference negatively impact a person's life, even if I didn't know them."
His speech made all the difference. The hate crimes bill had been about to be defeated, but it passed by an overwhelming vote. It's one of the all-time great political speeches, and I hope everyone who hears about it will read it. I intend to put it on my website this afternoon.
All three of our award winners today, each in their own way, have stood up to ancient hatreds and tried to put an end to the divisions between their fellow citizens. They are all truly Profiles in Courage.
It is my great honor now to introduce Caroline Kennedy, who continues to impress us all with her leadership here at the Library. I know her parents would be especially proud of the skilled work and devotion she brings to the Profile In Courage Award each year. They would also be so very proud of her latest accomplishment - her magnificent new book, "A Patriot's Handbook."
It is a remarkable anthology of the great historic speeches, poems, songs and stories that have been such an inspiring part of our country. As she says, they're the "building blocks of our democracy." They're also a timely reminder of the values Americans cherish and respect, especially after all we've been through as a nation in these last two years. Caroline's love of our country and love of its history comes shining through these pages. She's a joy to all of us who know and love her. Ladies and gentlemen, Caroline Kennedy.
Remarks delivered by Senator Edward M. Kennedy
at the presentation of the 2003 Profile in Courage Award to Governor Roy Barnes, Governor David Beasley and Representative Dan Ponder, May 12, 2003.
A Speech Against Hate
The 2003 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award has been awarded to former Georgia State Legislator Dan Ponder, Jr., whose passionate speech in support of hate-crime legislation galvanized the Georgia Legislature and ensured passage of the landmark bill. It was signed into law at a synagogue that had been vandalized with symbols of swastikas.
On March 16, 2000, The Georgia House of Representatives had voted 83-82 to shelve a bill enhancing penalties for hate-based crimes when Dan Ponder, a 43-year-old conservative Republican businessman from rural southwestern Georgia, defied expectations and rose to support the bill. Ponder, who owns a chain of fast food franchises, had decided not to seek reelection, but had nonetheless been expected to oppose the hate-crimes legislation along with most other members of his party. When he finished speaking, Republicans and Democrats rose to applaud him and then passed the legislation 116-49.
Dan Ponder’s courageous speech will take its place in American history as one of the great examples of the power of language to inspire action. Just as President Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize- winning Profiles in Courage brought courageous historical moments to life for later generations, so will Dan Ponder’s speech live on in the hearts and minds of all who read it as a testimonial to the values of freedom, tolerance, and diversity upon which our country depends.
Profiles in Courage for Our Time
Text of remarks delivered by State Representative Dan Ponder, Jr. in support of Hate Crimes Legislation, March 16, 2000.
Thank you Mr. Speaker, Ladies and Gentlemen of the House.
I am probably the last person, the most unlikely person that you would expect to be speaking from the well about Hate Crime Legislation. And I am going to talk about it a little differently from a lot of the conversations that have gone on thus far. I want to talk about it a little more personally, about how I came to believe what I believe.
About two weeks ago my family got together for my father’s 70th birthday. It was the first time since my oldest daughter was born 19 years ago that only the children and spouses got together, no grandchildren. We stayed up until 2 o’clock in the morning talking about hate crime legislation, this very bill.
Even my family could not come to a resolution about this bill, but we did agree that how you were raised and who we are would likely influence how you would vote on this bill. So I want you to know a little bit about me, and how I came to believe what I believe.
I am a White Republican, who lives in the very Southwest corner of the most ultra-conservative part of this state. I grew up there. I have agricultural roots. I grew up hunting and fishing. I had guns when I was a kid. On my 12th birthday I was given that thing that so many southern boys receive, that shotgun from my dad that somehow marked me as a man.
I was raised in a conservative Baptist church. I went to a large, mostly white Southern university. I lived in and was the President of the largest, totally white fraternity on that campus. I had 9 separate Great-Great-Great Grandfathers that fought for the Confederacy. I don’t have a single ancestor on all of my family lines that lived north of the Mason-Dixon line going back to the Revolutionary War. And it is not something that I am terribly proud of, but it is just part of my heritage, that not one, but several of those lines actually owned slaves.
So you would guess just by listening to my background that I am going to stand up here and talk against hate crime legislation. But you see, that’s the problem when you start stereotyping people by who they are and where they came from, because I totally, totally support this bill.
I come from a privileged background, but hate has no discrimination when it picks its victims. I have a Catholic brother-in-law. My sister could not be married in their church, and his priest refused to marry them because they were of different faiths.
I have a Jewish brother-in-law. The difference in that religion has caused part of my family to be estranged from each other for over 25 years.
I was the President of the largest fraternity at Auburn University, which won an award while I was there as the best chapter in the country. Out of over 100 members, 6 of those are now openly gay. But the “lasting bond of brotherhood” that we pledged ourselves to during those idealistic days apparently doesn’t apply if you should later come out and declare yourself gay.
Some of you know that my family had an exchange student from Kosovo that lived with us for six months, during the entire time of the fighting over there. When we last heard from her, her entire extended family of 26 members had not been heard from. Not one of them. They had all been killed or disappeared because of religious and ethnic differences that we can not even begin to understand.
My best friend in high school and college roommate’s parents were raised in Denmark during the war. His grandfather was killed serving in the Resistance. For three years, that family survived because people left food on their doorstep during the middle of the night. They couldn’t afford to openly give them food because they would then be killed themselves.
And to Representative McKinney, we are probably as different as two people can be in this House based on our backgrounds. But I myself have also known fear, because I am a white man that was mugged and robbed in Chicago in a black neighborhood.
And you are right. It is a terror that never goes away. It doesn’t end when the wounds heal or the dollars are replaced in your wallet. It is something that you live with the rest of your life.
But I want to tell you the real reason that I am standing here today. And this is personal, and in my five years in this House I have never abused my time in the well, and I only have 2 days before I leave this body, so I hope that you will just listen to this part for me.
There was one woman in my life that made a huge difference and her name was Mary Ward. She began working for my family before I was born. She was a young black woman whose own grandmother raised my mother. Mary, or May-Mar as I called her, came every morning before I was awake to cook breakfast so it would be on the table. She cooked our lunch. She washed our clothes.
But she was much more than that. She read books to me. When I was playing Little League she would go out and catch ball with me. She was never, ever afraid to discipline me or spank me. She expected the absolute best out of me, perhaps, and I am sure, even more than she did her own children. She would even travel with my family when we would go to our house in Florida during the summer, just as her own grandmother had done.
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. I don’t even know where it came from. This lady, who was devoting her whole life to me and my brother and sister, who loved me unconditionally, who had changed my diapers and fed me, and who was truly my second mother, that somehow she wasn’t worthy of a goodbye kiss simply because of the color of her skin.
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.
I have lived with the shame and memory of my betrayal of Mary Ward’s love for me. I pledged to myself then and I re-pledged to myself the day I buried her that never, ever again would I look in the mirror and know that I had kept silent, and let hate or prejudice or indifference negatively impact a person’s life…even if I didn’t know them.
Likewise, my wife and I promised to each other on the day that our oldest daughter was born that we would raise our children to be tolerant. That we would raise them to accept diversity and to celebrate it. In our home, someone’s difference would never be a reason for injustice.
When we take a stand, it can slowly make a difference. When I was a child, my father’s plants had a lot of whites and a lot of blacks working in them. We had separate water fountains. We had separate tables that we ate at. Now my daughter is completing her first year at Agnes Scott College. She informed me last week that she and her roommate, who happens to be black, they were thrown together just randomly last year as first year students, had decided that they were going to room together again next year.
I asked her the reasons that they had decided to live together again. She said, “Well, we just get along so well together.” She mentioned a couple of other reasons, but do you know what was absent? Color. She just didn’t think about it.
You can make progress when you take a stand. Our exchange student, who grew up in a country where your differences absolutely defined everything about you, now lives in Dallas where a whole community of different races has embraced her and is teaching her how to accept people who are different from her and who love her.
To those that would say that this bill is creating a special class of citizen, I would say….Who would choose to be a class of citizen or who would choose to be gay and risk the alienation of your own family and friends and co-workers?
Who would choose to be Jewish, so that they could endure the kind of hatred over the years that led to the Holocaust and the near extinction of the Jewish people on an entire continent?
Who would choose to be black simply so that their places of worship could be burned down or so that they could spend all their days at the back of the line?
We are who we are because God alone chose to make us that way. The burdens that we bear and the problems that we are trying to correct with this legislation are the result of man’s inhumanity to man. That is hardly trying to create a special class of people.
To those that would say that we already have laws to take care of these crimes, I would say watch the repeats of yesterday’s debate on the Lawmakers. We made passionate pleas on behalf of animal rights.
We talked with revulsion about cats being wired together with barbed wire. Surely, surely, Matthew Sheppard’s being beaten and hung up on a barbed wire fence and left to die is no less revolting. Surely our fellow man deserves no less than our pets.
Hate crimes are different. When I was a teenager, on more than one water tank, I painted “SR’s of ‘72”. Surely no one in here is going to tell me that the words that are painted on walls that say “Kill the Jews” or a swastika or “Fags must Die” or “Move the Niggers” are somehow the same as “SR’s of ‘72”. Even today, those very words make us feel uncomfortable and they should.
Surely we are not going to equate a barroom brawl or a crime of passion with a group that decides, with purpose, to get in a car and go beat up blacks or gays or Jews without even knowing who they are.
Hate crimes are about sending a message. The cross that was burned in a black person’s yard not so many years ago was a message to black people.
The gay person that is bashed walking down the sidewalk in midtown is a message to gay people.
And the Jews that have endured thousands of years of persecution were all being sent messages over and over again.
I would say to you that now is our turn to send a message. I am not a lawyer, I don’t know how difficult it would be to prosecute this or even care. I don’t really care that anyone is ever prosecuted under this bill.
But I do care that we take this moment in time, in history, to say that we are going to send a message.
The pope is now sending a message of reconciliation to Jews and people throughout this world. Some of those crimes occurred 2,000 years ago.
Mary Ward sent me a message many years ago. A message of unconditional love, regardless of the color of your skin.
My wife and I have sent a message to our children that we are all God’s children and that hate is unacceptable in our home.
I believe that we must send a message to people that are filled with hate in this world, that Georgia has no room for hatred within its borders. It is a message that we can send to the people of this state, but it is also a message that you have to send to yourself.
I ask you to look within yourself and do what you think is right. I ask you to vote YES on this bill and NO to hate.