This column is based on a speech I gave at the Human Rights Commission’s International Welcome Dinner on November 17.
We have so much to be thankful for, but it is fair to say 2016 has been a challenging year for America. As the year draws to an end, our country continues to be divided in many ways, and these tensions have emboldened some people to spread messages of racism and division.
As disheartening as this is, it is also an opportunity for us to reaffirm our belief in the dignity of every human being, and to let those who would try to incite hatred know that their message does not resonate with the people of Melrose—or with the vast majority of our country.
As columnist Scott Lehigh said in the Boston Globe this week, we must encourage courage. This means standing up for the vulnerable but also standing up to ourselves and confronting our own fears and insecurities. It means listening respectfully to those with different perspectives. It means stepping outside our comfort zone of friends, family, church, and politics, and engaging with those whose lives may be very different from our own. And it means confronting, and conquering, the impulse to demonize others, and instead reaching out to find our common humanity. We must remain faithful to the words on the Great Seal of the United States, “E pluribus unum—Out of many, one.”
Prejudice and hatred happen in isolation. The way to quell them is with community. When people talk to one another with open minds, they learn how much they have in common. They learn that each one of us is an individual, with hopes and fears. They learn that many of us have the same concerns—we worry about money, safety, our children, our aging parents. We laugh at the same jokes. We all rejoice at weddings and cry at funerals.
Indeed, one of the most important civil rights advances of this century, the official acceptance of same-sex marriage, happened in just this way. When our gay friends and family members spoke honestly about their experiences, and when the rest of us listened with open hearts to what they had to say, we were able to work together to make this monumental change—with Massachusetts leading the way.
Here in Melrose, we have much to be thankful for.
- We are a city that declared, over 20 years ago, that we are “One City Open to All.”
- We are home to an active Human Rights Commission that stands ready to respond when an incident occurs but that also does the important work of bringing people together.
- We are a city where hundreds of people reach out to help total strangers every year, by donating to the Melrose Emergency Fund. They don’t ask about race, religion, or anything else; they simply say “If someone is hurting, I want to help.”
- We are a city where people help each other dig out of blizzards, bring casseroles when someone is sick, even take in a neighbor after a house fire.
- We are a city that is proud of its heritage, a heritage that includes the famous abolitionist and women’s rights pioneer Samuel Sewall, the suffragist Mary Livermore, and the teacher who inspired Rosa Parks, Alice White, as well as soldiers who served in the African American brigades of the Civil War, abolitionists, writers, thinkers, and activists.
A century ago, Memorial Hall filled with citizens who were angry because a Stoneham hospital turned away a black woman in labor. Eighty years ago, the grandfather of our late alderman PJ Spencer donated his land to the Jewish community so they could bury their dead, because they were not allowed in Christian cemeteries. In the 1960s, ordinary citizens came together to ensure that Melrose would be a welcoming city in the turbulent days of the Civil Rights movement.
Two weeks ago, Dr. Harold May, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black pilots in the U.S. military, stood on a stage at Melrose High School and encouraged the teenagers of today to work to heal the divisions in our country, saying, “Seventy-five years from now, people will be looking back and saying, ‘They mobilized. They brought health to a world that was sick.’”
Today, we still stand strong with our neighbors, no matter who they are. And we will continue, in the words of Dr. May, to always act as if we are members of one family—because we are.
So I ask you, as Thanksgiving draws near, and we think of the many things we are thankful for:
- Do we have the courage to stand up against all forms of hate?
- Do we have the courage to stand alongside those who are bullied?
- Do we have the courage to ensure that Melrose is a safe place for everyone, no matter who they are, where they came from, or who they love?
- Do we have the courage to respect every person, and to listen with empathy to what they have to say?
- Do we have the courage to work together to make the world a better place, a more understanding place?
I believe we do, and this week we are thankful that we are Melrose, one community open to all.