"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." - Letter from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. published in the Atlantic Monthly, August 1963.
PHOENIXVILLE - Monday is a national holiday celebrating the birth of the famed Civil Rights leader quoted above. Since the death of Dr. King, the fight against prejudice and bigotry have taken many twists and turns in our nation. Some have negated the cause advocated by past civil rights leaders by interpreting their message to apply to African-Americans only.
As the introductory quote reveals, King was fighting for justice for all those who are victims of intolerance. Each January, I have attempted to call attention to these ideals as witnessed by others.
This year, I plan to share my personal experiences with the idol of hate, the loathsome god BIGOT. During my elementary school years, I first met the creature while attending Hadden Avenue School in a close-knit community named Westmont, N.J. During the 1930s, the then-rural areas were turned into housing units that required busing the children to school.
These children also brought their lunches to school and milk was provided since there was no cafeteria available. The rest of us "normal" children walked to our nearby homes for lunch hour.
The division was established. The "bus children" as they were known by students and teachers alike were treated differently. We were dismissed early while the bus children waited for their buses to arrive. The "Brown Bag Babies" as some labeled them also had a certain procedure at lunch. I don't remember segregated bathrooms for them but it wouldn't have surprised me.
Being born a rebel, I soon found friends among the newcomers and helped them become better integrated with the rest of us. I should mention there were no "minorities" among the children.
Later I attended Wagner Junior High School when our family moved to North Philadelphia. There I learned about other types of prejudice. The "Negroes (as they were called then)" went to Roosevelt Junior High and the Jews went to Wagner. We were on the dividing line on Wister Street. There was almost no contact between the three communities except in school. I heard the bad names that the Jews were called, and you can guess what the kids from Germantown were labeled. Soon my Jewish friends at school became part of our sports playground that we constructed on Wister Street. In fact, the basketball backboards that we built across from my home included a rich collage of players that included Jewish pals Joel and Charley Greenberg, who later each became captains of strong LaSalle College squads.
When it became too cold for outdoor play, I journeyed down Chelten Avenue to Anderson Recreation Center where integration had already begun. I played in their basketball and baseball programs and if you asked me who were white or black today, I couldn't remember. After all, that was 60 years ago and the differences weren't important there.
We moved to Pottstown after the war ended and I became the newcomer in ninth grade. After experiencing Germantown, I was surprised that there were no black members of the YMCA on King Street. Later, I thought of the address and its symbolism (King). Richard Rickets, Sr. was named Pottstown Recreation Director and was put in charge of Bethany Center on Beech Street. He was told to open the center on an every other day basis alternating white and black kids. He refused and I again was happy to be one of the few white kids who enjoyed playing at Bethany. I spent hours at the YMCA as well but couldn't understand the racial division.
After my college years, I taught English to Spanish students as part of my army duties in Puerto Rico. There I enjoyed the warm cultural traditions and heritage of the Caribbean people and do to this day.
My wife and I returned to the states in 1954 and I began teaching and coaching at Upper Dublin High School in Fort Washington. There I helped integrate my basketball team. Up to that time, there were no African-American boys on the squad. I was very militant about it, I might add.
I learned another lesson about integration after becoming a principal in Centennial School District in the early 1960s. There was a poor, white community known as Lacey Park, to some residents, Lazy Park. It had been a large housing complex for Willow Grove Naval Air Station during World War II. Now run by an absentee landlord, units rented for as low as $35 per month. There were some students from the rural South who had never spent a day in school. I learned that these kids faced a more bitter prejudice than I had even seen generated by race or religion. In fact, they were moved about from one district elementary school to another for years. I was very happy to be part of a team that changed the terror that these kids faced daily, both at home and in school.
During my tenure as an administrator and college teacher, I was determined that each child would have the right to the best education possible. I love the diversity of Phoenixville. In the past, I have learned so much about other cultures and appreciate our similarities and differences. In my daily walk with God during my twilight years, I hope to follow the teaching of Dr. King to fight injustice where I find it and help others along the way.