A 60’s Civil Rights Activist Looks Back
My friend Mark Levy delivered the commencement address at the Forest Hills High School graduation last week. When I entered Queens College in 1962, Mark was in his senior year. He was a Student Government President and an established leader in the Civil Rights movement. And although I became involved in both, Mark’s contributions to the Civil Rights movement, along with a handful of others, stands today as an inspiration to all of those who came and shall come after him.
I am proud of Mark and the remarkable group of activists I met at Queens College back in in those wonderful times known as the ‘60’s.
Mark was invited to give the commencement address at my alma mater, Forest Hills H.S., because of his involvement in the Civil Rights movement. I share with you, Mark’s script – in speaking style, as he points out – of his commencement address.
By MARK LEVY
Families and Friends.
Faculty and Staff.
Thank you for inviting me to share this important day.
I’ve never spoken to this large an audience before -- or even went to my own commencements. So, it’s a big deal for me, too.
I am really excited — and heartened — by the wonderful diversity I see out in this audience.
My theme is about: “Ordinary people doing extraordinary things!”
It’s also about the choices each of us face at various times:
Between — being an “Upstander” … or a “Bystander.”
It’s also about the important role that Young People have played in the past. And about roles needed in the future.
It was June 13th – a number of years ago, now – that I jumped into my little, green, Volkswagen. I left New York and headed for “Freedom Summer” — in Mississippi.
I was pretty young.
I had just graduated from Queens College.
I was one of almost 1,000 volunteers – mostly young college students – who went South that summer.
We had been invited to Mississippi by local people. To help in their fight for civil rights — To help with voter registration campaigns and freedom schools.
And to help pressure the state and federal government — to end segregation.
Then, one week later, on June 21st, we heard that three of our group had disappeared in Mississippi — and were likely murdered.
Two of the missing were New Yorkers. Also with connections to my college — Queens College. They were gone — but the rest of us had to “keep on, keeping on.”
It was 1964. It was a time when national newspapers and TV showed that, in Mississippi, “White Only” signs still hung over public water fountains, laundromats, movies theatres, and elsewhere.
Hospitals and schools were still segregated – And very unequal! Despite the law.
Discrimination was brutally and violently enforced by local police – while the FBI and other federal agencies just stood by.
“Negroes” – the polite term used then – who tried to register to vote were beaten, hosed, jailed, fired from jobs, and evicted from their homes.
I visited Forest Hills High a few weeks ago. I had a chance to talk with a class at your school.
After the buzzer, one student asked me a simple – but profound — question:
“Why did you go?”
He really was asking two questions:
Why you? … And Why go?
I’ve had a lifetime to think about that.
Parts of an answer, I think, raise issues for worth mentioning.
First of all, let me say: — I’m Jewish.
My parents were the children of immigrants. The Holocaust and anti-Jewish discrimination, right here, in the U.S. were important facts in my family’s life.
My parents passed on two important - and related – values, to us kids:
1) To believe that discrimination is a bad thing;
2) And to believe in social justice. To feel a personal obligation to care for others. To “repair the world.” To Make it a better place for everyone. (“Tikkun Olam”)
Second, I want to point out that social change was in the wind.
What I mean by that is that the civil rights Movement was growing and winning victories. The Montgomery bus boycott, lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides, desegregation of schools, the March on Washington – all were inspirational.
President John F. Kennedy had invited young people to get active — and to find what we could to do to make our country a better place.
Possibilities that had not existed before — now seemed imaginable.
There was a “Movement” going on. I wanted to be part of that. I believed that it — and I — could make a difference.
Thirdly, people I knew — and respected — reached out to me and invited me to join them. They pointed out the broader connections between what I was doing in student government at Queens, and what would be going on in Mississippi.
On my own, who knows what I would have done? But the fact that some people — whom I trusted — talked me into “getting involved.”
They “organized” me. That really made the final difference.
I should mention too: Having friends also involved — made it seem it would be a “fun” thing to do.
Given my family’s values, the inspiration of the movement, and being recruited by friends, I decided to go.
First we had training in nonviolence. We also prepared for the work — and for the dangers we would face.
What was most amazing to me – particularly as I look back – is that most of the leaders were so young.
Most were in their late-teens and twenties – not much older than you are.
Imagine, for a second, what these very young people we were just meeting had already done to make Mississippi Summer possible:
· They had to prepare to house and feed 1,000 volunteers - all summer long;
· They had to make leaflets and posters telling about the summer’s goals and activities ; That’s the experience of diversity — like I see right in front of me. I don’t know whether you really appreciate how unique what you have is.
It’s quite special. Look, I know everything’s not perfect – everyone’s not friends and cliques exist — but you’re way ahead of lots of the rest of us.
I think you should value that experience — and consider it a real asset. Remember it. Build on it.
Many of you will soon be scattering all over NY State — and all around the country. You will be spending time with people:
· Who have not lived with the diversity — anything like you’ve lived here.
· Who do not understand or appreciate other races and cultures.
· Who do not understand what it is like to be an immigrant — or the son or daughter of immigrants.
· Who may have been raised in very prejudiced communities.
If nothing else, you all will be Ambassadors to places … Places that don’t look anything like Queens!
I know that the things that I stood up for in 1964 — may not be the same things that YOU choose to stand up for in 2010, ‘11, or ‘12.
But whatever you do, I know that your decisions, either way – to act, or not to act — will make a difference.
So, I urge you: Be an “Upstander” — not just a “Bystander.”
Be more than an “Upstander” — be an “Organizer.”
Proudly carry that torch of diversity.
Don’t get frustrated or disheartened.
In my times, we were told: “You’re Either Part of the Solution, or You’re Part of the Problem.” I think that’s still pretty much true.
Please: Put some of your life into “repairing this world” – whatever that means — to you.
Queens is a rainbow – a microcosm of our world. Just like the passengers on the # 7 or E-F-G-or-R trains — from all over the world.
Our futures and our choices are all tied together.
We — as “ordinary people” — all have the potential for doing “extraordinary” things. It’s your choice.
For all our sakes, I wish you good luck.
Michael Schenkler can be reached at MSchenkler@QueensTribune.com