When President Trump signed his executive order concerning immigration last week, I joined other leaders in New Rochelle in issuing a strong statement in support of our immigrant community.
The reaction was swift and, in a gratifying sign of our city's inclusive and welcoming nature, mainly positive. But interspersed with the encouraging messages were several like these:
“Way to go Noam looks like you and city council will be going for the future anchor baby vote, so you better bone up on your Spanish while you’re sipping your mocha choke a latte.”
“It’s simple, follow the law or get out of office you a__holes. POTUS TRUMP IS ROCKING IT!!!!!”
“Gnome keeps the ‘illegal’ immigrants because that’s the only way he gets re-elected. It baffles me that, in the whole of New Rochelle, there isn’t someone that can unseat this idiot.”
Here are a few more in that vein. Other notes were more thorough, like this one sent to me by a successful, well-educated local attorney. I chose to share his email with my children, not because I take some perverse pleasure from being insulted, but because it seemed to me that they could learn valuable lessons from it:
- That the views we express in our own household are far from universally shared.
- That education and professional success confer no immunity to hatred and prejudice.
- Most importantly, that affirming one's beliefs can come at a cost, that we may anger neighbors and lose friends (or votes,) but that this is never a good reason to retreat from ideals and may, in fact, be a good reason to act with greater determination.
That last point is my purpose in writing today.
When I first became Mayor, I hung on my office wall a copy of the famous photograph of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, at Central High School in Arkansas. It is situated directly across from my desk and is the first thing in my field of vision when I look up.
The photograph is searing, with an air of barely restrained violence. There is Eckford herself, straight-backed and dignified, despite the welter of terrified emotions that must be concealed behind her dark glasses. Even more compelling are the people around her, their faces filled with smoldering hatred and angry certitude.
Perhaps some in this crowd were kind and loving in other contexts and were simply swept along by the wave of hate. Maybe they were themselves victims of a time and setting, who might have grown differently if planted in more nourishing soil. The content of another person's heart is probably unknowable, and we should be humble in our judgments. Yet, whatever their individual stories, in that moment, they were a mob of 400 — jeering and screaming at a quiet young woman, just 15 years old, whose only crime was to seek a decent education.
Despite the horrific nature of the scene, there has also been for me something reassuring about it, because from our present-day vantage point, we know how everything turns out. It is Eckford who wins. She is the hero, marching on history’s upward path. The others just supporting characters, their screams loud but ineffectual. Progress is inevitable; that is the lesson.
Or is it?
As the appalling awfulness of the new administration comes into ever clearer focus, we are reminded that history does not follow a steady upward path. History lurches back and forth. It circles and loops about. It collapses on itself, and then clambers back up, neither better nor worse than human nature, in all its competing brilliance and squalor.
So I take now a different lesson from the photograph — less reassuring, but perhaps more inspiring. Progress is never inevitable. It is a made thing, formed from our actions and inactions. Elizabeth Eckford didn’t arrive at a better future. She created a better future. And she braved incredible anger to do it.
Today, the issues are different, with details that can be reasonably debated, but in the mean and ugly calls to round-up immigrants, demonize Muslims, turn away traumatized and vulnerable refugees — including some who risked their lives for our country — we hear an unmistakable echo of the Little Rock mob. This must be resisted, even at personal cost.
Very few of us, thank God, will be called upon to demonstrate even a tiny fraction of Elizabeth Eckford's courage (receiving a handful of critical emails sure doesn’t qualify,) but we may be required in our own lesser ways to stand erect and proud in the face of anger, in order to turn the cycle of history once again.
I do not mean that we should gratuitously seek division or fail to appreciate competing points of view; on the contrary, our nation desperately needs more understanding and bridge-building. I mean instead that we must not be intimidated by anger or be afraid to stir it in just cause, especially those of us privileged to serve in leadership roles. When so much fundamental is at stake, if we are not making someone angry, we are probably doing something wrong . . . or doing nothing at all.
It is going to be a long four years. Four years during which the spirit of the crowd at Little Rock will dominate the federal government. But the federal government is not the totality of America. And there will come four years after that. And then forty years. And then forty more. Let us draw inspiration from Elizabeth Eckford and make a future worthy of her brave example.