By Don Zolman
At age 11 in 1965, I watched the March on Selma with my family on the evening news. I saw the dogs unleashed and people getting knocked senseless with billy clubs. I asked my parents why they were being attacked and my dad said it was because they wanted to be treated as equals. The animals and police were both vicious. Beating people over the head and dogs tearing at them, ripping their flesh. This was America, Land of the free, why was this happening? I remember being taught about the constitution and saying the pledge every day in school. In the Pledge, everyone was equal. In reality, they were not.
A few months later we were in South Carolina to visit my mother’s family. While there my grandfather took me to town to a restaurant for breakfast. I remember walking past a public drinking fountain signed “Whites only” and another “Coloreds”. I asked my grandfather why there were separate fountains. His answer? “That is just the way it is”.
When we got to the restaurant, I noticed a sign over the door that said “Whites only.”As I sat in the booth with my grandfather, I noticed a black man working in the kitchen. I asked my grandfather why he was in the restaurant when the sign said “Whites only” over the door. His answer was, “He can work here, but he can’t eat here”. Being an inquisitive child, I again asked “Why?” His answer was, “ that’s just the way it is”.
That’s just the way it is? What kind of an answer was that? A non-answer is what it was. As a young boy, I saw racism in person, but I never “felt” it personally. I was white after all. But even at 11, I knew it was wrong. Fast forward 10 years, I was a junior at Purdue University. That summer I was on a study tour in Europe, in a group of 30 selected from the Big Ten Universities. One portion of the trip we traveled to Poland and while there we went through the death camp at Auschwitz. Walking the grounds and going through the gas chambers and looking at the furnaces, it was hard to imagine how man could be so cruel. But I had seen what allowed such cruelty as a boy. Dehumanizing someone because they are different. On our way back to western Europe, we were stopped and searched in East Berlin. The Berlin wall was still there, and East Germany was like a huge concentration camp. We could see the wall in the distance as we boarded the train, guards with machine guns and police dogs were everywhere, concertina wire stretched for miles along the border. We saw where hundreds had died trying to escape tyranny, craving freedom. In the distance, we saw the lights of West Berlin. As we crossed the wall, lights burst into view and cars and people were everywhere. East Berlin, under curfew, had been quiet, the streets empty, dark, dank, and lifeless. West Berlin was teeming with life.
Those images have always been with me. The man who could work, but couldn’t eat because of the color of his skin. People beaten, shot, lynched, gassed, because of their race. Millions imprisoned because of ideology. Why? It seemed so senseless then and even more so now.
Singling out the “others” throughout history has allowed for cruelty and injustice to be done. How do we stop such suffering and inhumanity? By recognizing it for what it is. The death of George Floyd showed in real-time, how careless we can be with another person’s life. We all know, if we are honest with ourselves, that what happened to George Floyd has happened hundreds of times before. Those “other” times, a phone cam wasn’t there to catch it.
Here we are in 2020, and some people are still treated as the “other”. Treatment of them as “different” because of the color of their skin, their religion, or gender. If America is to be truly free, we must end this madness. No, we won’t be able to end it all. There will always be someone with an ax to grind. But
we can stop the systemic racism and bigotry. We can reach for that ideal and as a nation we can achieve it. It is time to move beyond the greed, hatred, and bigotry that was used to force Native Americans off of their lands, blacks into bondage, and those different to unequal treatment under the law.
I have seen the worst that man has to offer his fellow man. I have seen natives and blacks treated as less than humans. I saw where the Germans did the same. Their attempt at genocide failed because we, America, working with our allies, got to the camps to end the madness. Unfortunately, not before millions had died.
When Christopher Columbus landed in the West Indies, there were an estimated 60 million Native Americans living in North America. By the time California became a state there were 5 to 6 million left. About 90% had been killed or died from disease. Did we not, as a nation, commit as great a crime as Germany would commit in its crusade for world dominance? Yet America has done many amazing things. From moon shots to building the greatest economic engine the world has ever seen. And I have been privileged to have seen many of those amazing things happen and to participate in some small way. I have never been more proud of being an American than on that study tour where I spent the 4th of July in Russia. The 30 of us and our sponsors sang songs honoring America to the point it angered our hosts. I felt sad and yet proud at Auschwitz, sad for the horrific loss, proud knowing that my father had been in one of the first waves of allies that entered Berlin putting an end to the Nazi war machine and saving what was left of those imprisoned in Treblinka, Auschwitz, Dachau and other death camps.
But then, I see something happen here, in 2020, that reminds me again, how someone can hold another’s life in their hands with such little regard for it. I’m not saying that George Floyd was some kind of saint. He didn’t have to be. He was a human being whose life deserved the same chances and respect as any person deserves. I think it’s time we take a step back. Maybe take a long look at ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves what we would do if faced with such a situation as what befell George Floyd? Would we speak out and tell them to stop? It would be hard to do facing down some policemen and taking the chance of being arrested ourselves. But it’s not just the police. The attitude that allowed what happened to George Floyd is not a police problem. It is a part of the human condition. I saw it from South Carolina, to Poland, to Russia, to Germany, to Minnesota, to South Dakota and Oklahoma.
When the Constitution was written, it did not recognize slaves or natives as full participants in the rights it was bestowing upon American citizens. They were figured as property or savages that were not totally human. Over time, we corrected those errors in word, if not in deed. The time to honor our word has long since come. All Americans should be afforded the same rights, regardless of race, color, creed, or gender. It is our responsibility as citizens to make sure that all are treated equally and without malice.
As we celebrate the 4th of July weekend, we should remember what we have pledged countless times in the Pledge of Allegiance, “with liberty and justice for all.” It’s time to make good on the promises we made 244 years ago but have not yet fulfilled.
Don Zolman is a longtime resident of Kosciusko County.