I was very excited to be asked to be a panelist at the University of Akron town hall meeting on Human Rights. I am no expert on the topic, but have always had strong feeling on social justice and inequality in society.
It started when I was young. I will pick up the story in 8th grade. My parents were divorced, my dad moved to Mississippi and I was a living with my Mom and brother in Elbridge, NY. (On a side note, Elbridge, NY was a white area. Period.) I went to spend my summer at Dad's. I was not looking forward to this trip. However, something that changed my life happened that summer. A few days after being in Vicksburg Mississippi, I made my way down to the basketball courts at his apartment. I stood along the side of the court in the hot mid-day sun, just hoping to be picked. This young black kids said, "I will take the fat white kid." That was me. That is not what was life changing, but I guess I remember it. After the game, I was not good, that young guy and I started to talk. His name was Heath Walls. He was a year younger, but strong and more athletic then me.
Over the course of the summer, he and I became best of friends--over the long term, we became brother. After I headed back to NY, we did not lose touch. Every week, he went to my dad's apartment on Sunday night at 7 to call me in NY--Every Sunday.
Moving forward, every summer I would spend weeks in Mississippi. Every minute I was awake was spent with Heath. We were not separated. As I graduated, in 1989, Heath made the trip to NY to see the event (returned the trip to Murray, KY-He had moved without his father and brothers to get a better education in mid 80's living with his grandmother--in 1990 to see him graduate from HS). He followed me (or I begged him--depends on which one you ask) to the University of Dayton, but his dream of that degree ended on a park bench outside of St. Mary's Hall, we both began to cry as he was unable to afford any more time at UD. He had to drop out. A part of me left UD two weeks later, as I drove Heath the six hours back to Murray.
Heath and I experienced outright racism, as HS kkk (I won't mention the names, but I remember them) members chased us several times around the street of Vicksburg and across Mississippi River bridge to Louisiana on I-20. To subtle experiences, like people walking into stores at the mall, so they would not pass us, only to walk out as soon as we past. To more personal forms, of my grandparents encouraging us to spend the night with the others grandparents when in Newark, Ohio (that never happened when I was alone.)
I spent 3/4 of my life thinking about the ways Heath and I had different opportunities in life. I thought about justice, fairness, inequality and racism. In fact, I took classes on history, social inequality, and politics As I got my first job, I read the book "You can't remain neutral on a moving train." By Howard Zinn that explained how inaction sides with the oppressor. Looking back, have I lived that? Have I spoke out? Have I acted to protect others? Or Have I stayed Neutral?
The answers are unclear at this point...time will tell.