It took a murder to get me off my butt.
As a veteran journalist, trained to be observant and objective, the decision to become an activist – to take a stand in a visible way – was a long time coming.
In the summer of 1998, while living aboard my sailboat Ranger, off Key West, I noticed a small news article in the newspaper. A black man had been dragged to death in Jasper, Texas by white men. The news struck me like thunder. What could I do? After watching an episode of Oprah’s Angels, ordinary citizens who become “angels” helping others, I flew to Jasper to see what I could do. I knew no one. But I had a crazy idea that the city needed healing after this horrendous racist crime.
Borrowing a computer and printer from an office-supply store, I distributed a one-page proposal entitled, If I Had a Hammer. It suggested that by building something, or repairing something, together, black and white Jasper could meet, set common goals and bridge a racial divide that was hundreds of years old. One proposal in particular had merit, in my view: building a new community swimming pool, to replace the city pool filled in with dirt in the 1960s to prevent integration.
Jasper was inundated with outside “experts” and opinions, and my little list was lost in a glare of bad publicity. But before I left town I learned of, and called, the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. I said I wanted to write a book on how communities deal with hate crimes, but I needed examples beyond Jasper. In exchange for SPLC’s data, I would offer, pro bono, three months of writing and editing. SPLC agreed, and I sailed Ranger across the Gulf of Mexico and 300 miles up the slow, winding Alabama River. I feared, at times, like I was sailing into Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
At the city’s muddy marina, celebrating my arrival at the bar, I let slip my mission. The next morning, the marina owner came to the boat waving a newspaper.
“I’ve got some good news for ya'” he drawled. “There’s been a cross burning.”
I volunteered three months at SPLC, then became a paid staffer. Among my projects: A Webby-award winning Web site, Tolerance.org; a community guide, Ten Ways to Fight Hate; an immigration project, Injustice on our Plates; and my first film, Faces in the Water. To read more, click on SPLC in the main menu, and choose from the drop-down menu.