‘All men are indeed created equal’

Posted Dec. 11, 2008, at 7:10 p.m.

This is in response to the letter by Linda Shaid, “Knee-jerk reaction” (BDN, Dec. 2). This past weekend we observed Pearl Harbor Day. Sixty-seven years ago Japan launched a surprise attack on our naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It would thrust us openly into war with Germany, Japan and the other Axis nations. Both Germany and Japan held racial purity in high regard. They scorned the “great melting pot” that was the United States with its so-called mongrel races. We fought them and against their ideas and won.

America became united behind a cause to defeat the Axis view of a racially pure future. But in America segregation was alive and well. We interned thousands of Americans whose only crime was that they also happened to be of Asian descent. The armed services were also segregated with many minorities fighting and dying bravely. At the same time Dorie Miller, the ship’s cook for the USS West Virginia, was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism at Pearl Harbor. He was African-American.

The stark contrasts continued from Pearl Harbor, through the balance of World War II and after. Bravery in war did not translate to a seat at the lunch counter or a room in a hotel for a weary traveler. Eventually our nation and its people saw the moral imperative and heard again, and for the first time, the words of our Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal.

In the days after remembrance for the bravery at Pearl Harbor, we await anxiously for President-elect Barack Obama to be sworn in and assume the office to which he was elected by the people of the United States of America. He was not elected by one race, but all the races that make up this melting pot, and we are a better nation because of it. But hate and bigotry remain.

In this state, on Election Day, shirts were worn at the polls with slogans such as “Obama is stupid and so are you if you vote for him.” “KKK” was written on signs along the rail trail in our state’s capital. The owner of a Maine store, after the election, posted or allowed to be posted the “Osama Obama Shotgun Pool,” inviting customers to bet on the date when President-elect Obama would be assassinated. “Stabbing, shooting, roadside bombs, they all count.” Someone — maybe the owner, maybe a customer — wrote, “Let’s hope someone wins” at the bottom of the sign.

As a member of the Maine House of Representatives I was appalled at these acts of racism and hate. We in the Maine Legislature passed a resolution denouncing acts and suggested acts of hate and violence within hours of being sworn in as the 124th Maine Legislature. Penobscot Tribal Rep. Wayne Mitchell spoke eloquently and passionately on the resolution.

Sponsors of the resolution said that the “shotgun pool” and other expressions of violence smeared the majority of Maine people in the eyes of the nation and should not be tolerated. The resolution had no opposition among the 186 members. Even so, there are those who say resolutions in general and this one against hate, in particular, are without force.

I submit that similar criticism was laid before the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Imagine a hodge-podge of colonies declaring their right to be free from the most powerful nation on earth. And yet, that declaration sparked the imagination of those colonies to be united behind a cause for freedom. It flamed a hope that people could pursue life, liberty and happiness free of tyranny.

We, the members of the 124th Legislature, declared that we reject all acts and suggested acts of hate and violence against any person or any race. Perhaps it will be the spark to unite Mainers behind the cause not to tolerate further acts of hate. I sincerely hope so. No ego boost is sought.

Sixty-seven years ago, on Dec. 7, 1941, with an indignant and mighty force, we rose from the ashes, and, with one voice, we halted nations asserting that their race was superior to all others. With faults and fits we have arrived at this Pearl Harbor Day remembering heroism in the face of such bigotry. Let us stand together and remember how much many have sacrificed in defense of the principle that all men are indeed created equal. Let us stand with one voice against hate.

Rep. Richard Cleary, D-Houlton, represents District 8 in the Maine House.

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