Stand Firm Amid Hatred and Incivility

Blog by Associate Colette Parker

I had just finished reading an article about the death of John Salter Jr. (aka John Hunter Gray), when I was confronted with the video of white Catholic high school boys taunting an elder Native American Vietnam Veteran at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in our nation’s capital.

I was outraged by the despicable display of white privilege looking down its nose at a man who put his life on the line in Vietnam and seeing him as less than human. The Omaha elder was in Washington D.C. for the Indigenous Peoples March when he encountered the group of Kentucky high school boys, wearing “Make America Great Again” caps, who had just participated in the March for Life.

The incident illustrates how white privilege empowers people to behave in the most inhumane, disgraceful, reprehensible, and hateful ways. It enabled white kids to mock the Little Rock Nine at Little Rock Central High School in 1957 in Arkansas. It empowered young white people to douse Salter, Anne Moody, and Joan Trumpauer with sugar, mustard, and ketchup at a segregated lunch counter at a Woolworth’s store in 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi and to burn Salter with cigarettes, throw pepper in his eyes and attack him with brass knuckles and broken glass.

(Sidebar: I am compelled to ask if those were the days when America was great?  Is that what the “Make America Great Again” message means?)

Maybe it wasn’t commonly called white privilege in 1963 and 1957, but the phenomenon was alive and well – the privilege to move through the world without your race defining your interactions, the power to remain silent in the face of racial inequity, the privilege to choose when and where you want to take a stand, the power of knowing that you and your humanity are safe.

Even in the face of the ugliness that was shown in the video (including the image of a high school boy with an arrogant smirk on his face, staring down the Omaha elder), there are some trying to discount or justify the actions of these boys and explain away the inhumane treatment of the Vietnam Veteran – at least two parents reportedly blamed a group of “Black Muslims” and the Omaha elder himself; others blamed his chaperones and parents. (Note: the “Black Muslims” referred to by the parent were actually identified as Black Hebrew Israelites).

But today – the day that we commemorate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. – I would like to highlight those voices that condemned the actions of the boys who mocked the elder: The Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington, Covington Catholic High School and Covington Mayor Joe Meyer (who technically isn’t the mayor of the municipality, Park Hills, where the boys’ high school is located). The people behind these voices chose to stand for what is right, when they could have chosen to be silent.

“… because of the actions of people who live in Northern Kentucky, our region is being challenged again to examine our core identities, values, and beliefs. Regardless of what exact town we live in, we need to ask ourselves whether behavior like this DOES represent who we are and strive to be. Is this what our schools teach? Are these the beliefs that we as parents model and condone?” Meyer wrote in an op-ed.

For me, the voices of those who had the courage to speak out against injustice, remind me of the wise words of Rev. King: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

The question today is: Where do you stand in this climate of hatred and incivility?

“However young you are, you have a responsibility to seek to make your nation a better nation in which to live. You have a responsibility to seek to make life better for everybody. And so you must be involved in the struggle of freedom and justice.” – Martin Luther King Jr. (“What is Your Life’s Blueprint?”, October 26, 1967, Philadelphia)

Posted in Associate Blog, News

29 responses to “Stand Firm Amid Hatred and Incivility

  1. A few thoughts a week later, Colette–The cheering section of this school has dressed up in blackface, and then the school posted that on a video about the cheering section.

    The school refused to meet with Native Americans who came to talk and offered to teach some consciousness-raising classes.

    The boys also did a “tomahawk chop,” which has been explained away as asking students to up the volume, a use of poor judgment, or part of a cheer.

    Getting in someone’s face is a tactic used by people who protest at Planned Parenthood or other women’s clinics.

    Some of the chaperones have said that the students were called horrible, shocking names by the Black Hebrew Israelits. That is wrong. And it was also wrong for people to scream at my friend that she was a baby-killer and unfit to be a mother when she went to PP for a mammogram and annual physical.

    I hope that this event will make the students more sympathetic to people who have been screamed at by crowds (the video made me think of the Little Rock Nine going to school).

  2. I did hear Mr. Phillips interviewed regarding the incident referenced. His perception appeared more in line with the idea of keeping the situation between the boys and the Black Hebrew Israelites from escalating. Phillips said that in order to do that, he locked eyes with the boy in the video, and he began chanting and drumming in order to redirect the boys away from engagaing in a confrontation with the BHI.
    I have cautioned myself, and it’s not easy to do, to seek out trusted sources on a controversial subject before trying to form any kind of judgement about what probably did or did not happen.
    As Colette pointed out, opposing hatred and incivity is a duty we share as Christians. Informing ourselves with the truth, is imperative to our success. These days, that’s a real challenge.

  3. Colette,
    As you can see in reading the responses to the incident with the Covington Catholic High School boys after the March for Life, there has been a shift from the initial limited video posted by the media with universal condemnation to the realization that maybe we do not have all of the facts. This is a cautionary tale to all of us to be sure before we blame and assign derogatory labels to others when we are not in possession of the truth. Nathan Phillips served in the military briefly at the end of the Vietnam era, but he was never in Viet Nam. He never really said that he was, but the media did. Based on the initial reaction to the media stories the students have been shunned and threatened. It saddens me that the even the Church and School were so quick to renounce the events of last Friday. Maybe everyone should wait until the results of the independent investigation into the incident are reported, before casting the first stone. We need to seek truth and then speak it. Peace

  4. Last night I attended another showing of the video Traces of the Trade: A Story of the Deep South. (An excellent video of racism in the north.)

    After the viewing we had conversation and this topic came up. One of the sisters said that she had talked to priest in New Orleans who teaches at a black high school. They, too, were at the Right to Live March and encountered these young men. Their response was to pray and sing Kumbaya. This helped the tension to come down and people when their way.

    This was one of the good things that happened that day. Thought you’d like to know.

  5. Thank you, Colette, for raising the issue that we all must deal with. This incident wasn’t as clear cut as it seemed to be at first. Apparently there were a number of other videos taken of the same interaction but from different angles and they deliver a different message. Yet the TV media focused its spotlight for well over 30 minutes of TV time to the most demeaning interpretation of the incident and of Catholic schools. It’s a shame it had to take place after the March for Life because that wasn’t the reason for the incident at all.

  6. Dear Colette,
    Much to think and dialog about, TY for Your voice and all who responded. My parents at times were overwhelmed with the responsibility of raising 11 children. The core lesson learned from them was, BE A BLESSING, LOVE AT ALL TIMES, if not WE WOULD BE A BURDEN, A CURSE, and GOD DOESN’t LIKE UGLY. We might have been raised in poverty but WE HAD TREASURES BEYOND MEASURE. We are spiritual beings having a human experience and Yes we need to have some agitation to get the souls cleansed , and KEEP OUR EYES ON THE PRIZE and continue to KEEP HOPE ALIVE LIVING THE KINGDOM OF GOD. We are thankful everyday to have opportunities for learning how to Love. PEACE, Donita Rossiter OPA

  7. I sent some articles to you. I read all the responses and every one seems to condemn the boys which really was not the ones who instigated the problem ,because they wore the hats in which people hate the president they will do anything to start the hate. I would like to hear on the tv one nice word about the president instead of constanly bashing him. There is were we need to start and have respect ,we have none. TheTV is the problem with reporters reporting false information, they reported this and people believe it . Will they apologize, no ,these kids do not deserve this. Sorry my opinion. I pray everyday that people will come to their senses and share love and respect! Gods blessing and love.

  8. I am outraged too, Colette. Those boys were acting with a mob mentality which was no excuse for the taunting and smirk. I sincerely hope their Principal and teachers not only discipline the students but use it as a lesson to teach respect for all people, especially their elders and those who have made it possible for them to grow up in America. White privilege is no excuse for acting the way they did. We must examine ourselves and behaviors too. Your sidebar is to the point.

  9. Thank you Colette. I have been praying with this since I first saw it on the news. I have to say, I was drawn into judgement initially. All were responsible for this display, whether it was for public eyes or not. I go back to Fr. Ron who preached that we need to remember all involved in these types of acts. For the Lord loves them all….equally. It is hard to do.

    I begin doing my small part in the crimes of injustice by simply inviting others for a cup of tea/coffee. To talk. Face to face. So I may listen to someone else’s opinion as seen through the lens of their sacred story.

    When I was a pediatrician, I would go to the nursery and see dozens of beautiful babies each morning. I keep that vision in my mind in these kinds of circumstances and question, “What happened to the persons mocking Mr. Johnson? They were all innocent babies at one time.”

    Until there is Peace, I listen to the stories. And pray I will be able to love them all. MLK was a Soul we could use in our country right now. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  10. Colette,
    Thanks always for speaking out! We all need to develop a loud voice to protest the injustices of the world. What happened in DC was undeserved. These boys should be punished. I just want to know where were the chaperones for this “march on life.”

    Patti Herrick

  11. Thank you Colett, for speaking the truth from our history & your experience. There are lots of people saying the other group “started it”. How sad. It was up to these young men to do the right thing & not rsspond to taunts. And yes, the adult chaperones most certainly should have not allowed this behavior. I stand where I always have, squarely on the side of, justice, humanity, solidarity and love.

  12. Thank you for your blog, Colette. I, too, was so upset when I saw and heard what happened. And after experiencing the March for Life! The unborn are not the only ones who deserve respect and lives that are free of prejudice.

    1. Amen, Sr. Jolene. Rev. King’s legacy of human dignity and respect for all can inspire us all to do better and be better.

  13. I read another article about this and it’s not the same. It tells that there were black protesters taunting these boys do not know what to believe. When I first read this I was appalled thinking these boys parents sure did not teach their kids well . I would like to send that article to you or maybe you read it . Need your email.

    1. Hi, Dorothy. I have read that article and seen other coverage of video that shows the Black Hebrew Israelites. I have also seen video of the boys jumping up and down and mocking the Vietnam Veteran. I certainly don’t claim to have all of the answers, but I have a difficult time accepting the use of the Hebrew Israelites as an excuse for the behavior of these boys toward the Omaha elder. I see them as two different issues and I certainly don’t condone what I heard coming out of the Hebrew Israelites’ mouths. Thank you for your response. I believe dialogue helps build bridges of understanding. My email: cparker@oppeace.org

    2. I don’t know the exact article you are referencing; however, I have read several that discussed at length the words and actions of the five or so Black Hebrew Israelites (BHI). Yes, the BHI were hurling racial epithets at the group from Covington Catholic High School (CC). The Southern Poverty Law Center has listed BHI under the heading of “Black Nationalists.”

      In order to drown out the BHI, the students from CC allegedly asked for and received permission from an adult chaperone to engage in one of their popular cheers. As one can imagine, the 50 or so boys chanting/cheering in response to the five BHI, was cause for concern. This is when Nathan Phillips, the Omaha elder, took the initiative to create a diversion. That Mr. Phillips didn’t completely grasp what was occurring between the BHI and CC is beside the point. He saw tensions increasing and did what he thought best to defuse the situation.

      The actions and words of the BHI, while abhorrent, do not excuse the treatment of Mr. Phillips by the Covington Catholic students. It was their behavior and disrespect toward Mr. Phillips, et al that is the primary issue.

  14. Thank you, Colette. Yes, a shocking and outrageous display of both privilege and ignorance. Some news reports have indicated that the school plans to take action, including “possible expulsion.”
    Rather than expelling the students involved, the school administrators need to look at the content of both teaching and school spirit, and determine what is to be done going forward to make this a time of real learning—about Catholic/Christian teaching, about the history of our country’s treatment of the Native peoples, about how to develop virtue and the process of moral decision-making…
    Otherwise, the cycle continues.

    1. Judi, I agree. This is a teachable moment for us all, particularly the students. I hope this incident leads to some authentic conversation that moves us forward.

  15. Well done, Colette. Unless we individually ask ourselves where we stand on issues, we may be drawn to follow the person with the loudest voice, greatest personality, or importance in a group, etc.. Frequent meditations on racial issues may help is to see from what thinking we act.

    1. Yes, Jean. It all starts with the individual and grows from there. As Rev. King said:“Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”

    1. Sr. Germaine, It was a personal challenge for me to write this. I tried to find a different topic several times, but the Holy Spirit reigned. I do believe we must search and examine overselves, especially during times like these, if we are to avoid adding to the chaos. In recent years, I have dedicated Martin Luther King Day as a day of self-examination and self-reflection.

  16. Dear Colette
    Thank you for you raising your voice in behalf of truth, integrity and respect for all God’s People. I am taking it to heart in my own prayer.

    Blessings and peace,
    Sr. Brigid

  17. I heard the Omaha Elder in an interview on NPR this morning, and his voice projected serenity and spiritual depth. His response to the two potentially violent groups was to pray using his drum, which is what is seen in the video. Thank you, Colette, for your thoughtful and pertinent words. We can only hope that all those concerned about the life of the unborn, can also respect the lives of those who are different.

    1. Sr. Mary Ann, Thank you for your response. I am still amazed at how difficult it is for us to love others as we love ourselves and how difficult it is for us to accept that we are all part of the human race. Like, Rev. King said, we must be rooted in love: “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

      1. Well said Colette. I always pondered the command to “Love others as you Love yourself.” The difficulty lies in Loving one’s Self. Until you get to that beautiful place, the Other is difficult to which to Love.

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