Website Editor’s Note: This reflection, by Paul Manganiello, also appears at VTDigger.org
The day following the presidential inauguration, my wife and I participated in a church fundraiser for the incoming Rutland Syrian refugees. We were also coming to the end of Dartmouth’s annual weeklong Martin Luther King commemoration. Following the fundraiser, my wife and I went to see the movie “Hidden Figures,” an incredible story of a group of black women who worked at NASA’s Langley facility in the segregated South during the 1960s. One of the women, a recipient of the presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, was responsible for the mathematical calculations culminating in John Glenn’s 1962 Earth orbit. As I watched the film, I was overcome with sadness. During a scene when the NASA director, Al Harrison, was tearing down the colored-only bathroom sign, I found myself unable to stop crying, thinking of the senseless intimidation and humiliation so many blacks have experienced and continue to experience, and I recounted memories of when I was a young teenager.
During high school, I volunteered to work in a Roman Catholic parish in Kiln, Mississippi, to salvage building material from an abandoned summer camp. It was the summer of 1964, when members of the Ku Klux Klan murdered the three freedom riders, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The young men were helping to register African-Americans to vote.
It was my first air flight, traveling from Newark to New Orleans. Walking through the streets of the French Quarter watching kids play stickball, it felt like I was back home in New Jersey, but it was there that I first encountered the segregated South. At the bus station, I unknowingly sat in the colored-only area, and saw for the first time the white-only and colored-only water fountains.
While I was working at the camp, I injured myself and needed to go to the doctor for a tetanus shot. The institutionalized discrimination of the South was always apparent, I entered the white-only entrance, which was right next to the colored-only entrance.
The ’60s may have been a great time for privileged whites, but it sure wasn’t so for our black neighbors.
But what is the connection to our country’s black history and current events concerning migrants?
Throughout the campaign, Donald Trump frequently used the slogan, “Let’s Make America Great Again.” The ’60s may have been a great time for privileged whites, but it sure wasn’t so for our black neighbors. This election has brought out the worst in our society, especially when you have individuals like Richard Spencer, founder of the alt-right movement, spewing untruths, and saying, “At the end of the day, America belongs to white men.”
The truth is, our country has always vilified a segment of its population; every new migrant group has been scapegoated. But the greatness of this country is rooted in those migrants: slaves (unwilling), immigrants, refugees and now, their descendants. We all have our personal migrant story; we are all in some way or another immigrants. My Catholic grandparents came from a small town outside of Naples, Italy, and they certainly were not welcomed here.
The truth is that our new immigrants, like immigrants in the past, will champion the American ideals of justice, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and will continue to make this country great. We need to welcome those who are escaping violence in their homeland and who are trying to start anew here, like so many who have gone before them. That’s the American story.