“I remember: it happened yesterday, or eternities ago. A young Jewish boy discovered the Kingdom of Night. I remember his bewilderment, I remember his anguish. It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.
“I remember he asked his father: ‘Can this be true? This is the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?’
“And now the boy is turning to me. ‘Tell me,’ he asks, ‘what have you done with my future, what have you done with your life?’ And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.
“And then I explain to him how naïve we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
This passage (emphasis mine) is from Holocaust survivor and human rights champion Elie Wiesel’s 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Elie Wiesel spoke with a moral authority and clarity that is as obvious to even the smallest child watching a playground bully as it is to a witness of an unbearable genocide. Yet this plain moral truth has now been shamefully denied and trampled upon by the holder of our nation’s loudest bully pulpit – the Presidency.
There are not two sides to Nazism. There are not two sides to White supremacism, bigotry, and racial and religious hatred and intolerance. Heather Heyer – a nonviolent protester against racial intolerance – is not as much at fault as the man who violently and deliberately hit and killed her with his car on a Charlottesville street. What must our children be thinking and learning from this? How can we equate an evil and violent act that took a life to a nonviolent protest? How do we encourage our children to stand up and fight back nonviolently in the face of evil when morally blind leaders can’t tell the difference?
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is currently tracking 917 hate groups across our nation. Lecia Brooks, SPLC’s director of outreach, said, “The ugly bigotry and hate on display in Charlottesville underscores a growing sickness in our country – one that’s become all too commonplace and increasingly lethal.” They are among many groups and leaders and individuals calling on President Donald Trump to take responsibility for his role. SPLC says in a new petition: “President Trump’s campaign and presidency have energized the white supremacist movement in unprecedented ways. We saw it in the support he received from the likes of David Duke during his campaign. We saw it in the surge in hate crimes committed in his name after his election. And we saw it in the deadly gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville . . . At this point, it’s not enough for Trump simply to condemn bigotry. He must take responsibility for the surge in white supremacy and hate that he has unleashed.”
While Americans wait to see whether that happens, it is up to parents and grandparents and faith leaders and educators and all those committed to building a more just nation to step into the void. We must teach our children the truth about our history and the importance of speaking and standing up nonviolently. We must exemplify the actions we want our children to follow. We must refuse to raise ahistorical and amoral children who ignore or support evil. We must not raise another generation who choose violence as a way of life and cannot respectfully disagree without it. Remaining silent is not an option. Our children must know right from wrong and be willing to stand up and take sides thoughtfully and nonviolently. And adults at all levels beginning with our president and political leaders have a responsibility not to ever condone intolerance and violence.
I hope we will teach children how to respect the sacred lives of every human being and end with this prayer.
O God, help our children to feel love and appreciation for all Your gifts of life.
Grant each of them a passion for peace and justice.
Kindness for those who are weak and needy and sad and afraid.
Courage to stand up for right and to struggle against wrong.
Friendship and kinship with all who share the world You have created.
Grant our children faith to open the door of their souls wide to life and love as You intend.
Protect them against the worms of hate and the weasels of selfishness and envy.
Help our children to sing their own songs and to hear and respect the songs of others in the spheres of our earth’s firmament.
Dear God, help us to live what we preach so that we may be worthy of our children’s respect.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.