IT might strike some in today’s world as strange that an individual is being honored for standing up for the rights of certain minorities to be able to rent or buy a home, eat at a local restaurant or be given equal opportunity for a job.
This is, after all, Columbus — a community of many cultures and social backgrounds, a city where customers (regardless of the color of their skin or their social background) are assiduously courted by businesses.
It wasn’t always so. In the lifetime of many older residents, a different Columbus once existed — one in which black people were treated as second-class citizens, denied the opportunity to rent or buy certain apartments or houses, refused service at established restaurants.
That Columbus is only a thing of memory because of individuals like Owen Hungerford, who will be honored April 10 by the Columbus Human Rights Commission as the recipient of the 2013 William R. Laws Human Rights Award.
Hungerford was one in a small army of local residents who set out in the 1960s to erase a tradition of racism in Columbus that had spanned several generations. The primary victims of this institutional and personal bigotry were a small number of blacks, some of whom had recently moved to the community and others whose families had lived here for decades.
An executive with Irwin Management at the time, Hungerford had become friends with Mickey King, a young black man who had been hired as a microbiologist at Bartholomew County Hospital (forerunner of Columbus Regional Hospital). King recounted to Hungerford instances in which local real estate agents and landlords had refused to rent property to him because of his skin color.
Hungerford joined a team that included Laws (then the pastor of First Presbyterian Church), J. Irwin Miller (chairman of Cummins Engine Co. and Irwin Union Bank and Trust Co.), Lee Hamilton (then a Columbus attorney who would later represent Indiana’s 9th District in the U.S. House of Representatives) and King.
In a world of greater acceptance today, it might be difficult for some to understand the difficulty of the task before these early civil rights champions, but those who lived here then can well remember the opposition that they encountered and the bitter feelings their efforts engendered.
It took courage to take the positions these men and women assumed, but in the end they paved the way to what eventually would become a much more welcoming community.
Hungerford was especially involved in the effort to convince city leaders to adopt a human rights ordinance that signaled an end to discriminatory practices of several decades standing. Today the Human Rights Commission, which was created through that ordinance, is an accepted government agency that has influenced the reshaping of personal and institutional attitudes throughout the city.
Many of those who were involved in those early struggles have since passed on. It is fitting that Hungerford should be honored now, a necessary reminder to present and future generations that rights that are taken for granted today were achieved because of the struggles of an earlier generation.