Lorraine Smith, Columbus Human Rights Commission director, hopes individuals who attend the program “The Right to Dream” on Jan. 20 at the Commons walk away with more than an appreciation for history.
Smith said she hopes those in attendance are inspired to continue bringing about positive change in Columbus and beyond.
“A lot of times, our young people don’t know the extent of what it took to get to where we are today,” Smith said. “We become complacent and don’t realize it takes the action and strength of individuals collectively to bring about change.”
Smith grew up in Vicksburg, Miss., in the 1960s with obvious signs of Jim Crow all around, such as segregated drinking fountains and restaurants. She recalls boycotts, marches and non-violent direct actions, including sit-ins at lunch counters. The late Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at a church just two houses down from where Smith lived.
“I was aware as a little girl what was going on,” Smith said. “And as I got older, it crystallized with me about what my neighbors and family were doing. I knew something big was happening, but as I grew older I realized the significance about the movement that was going on around me.”
Some people may not realize, but Columbus has had its own struggle, Smith said.
There was a strong need within the housing community for African-Americans to be able to live where they wanted, Smith said. Mickey King, former chief microbiologist at Bartholomew County Hospital, which was later renamed Columbus Regional Hospital; former Cummins CEO J. Irwin Miller; and Lynn Bigley, the first female chairperson of the Columbus Human Rights Commission, are just a few community members who worked on housing issues here.
And though some cases of discrimination still occur, it isn’t as prevalent as in the past, Smith said.
“We’ve become a more welcoming community,” Smith said. “It’s been a journey. There’s definitely progress, but there are still issues the community needs to work on.”
There are a couple lessons to be learned from the Jan. 20 program, Smith said.
“One is the recognition that we are standing on the shoulders of people who made great sacrifices for the freedoms all of us have today,” Smith said. “The other is to recognize how history is instructive for today.”
It’s important for people to step outside their comfort zones and learn more about people who are different than them, Smith said. There is more commonality among everyone than people realize.
“Once we get to know one another, we can think critically about stereotypes and dismantle them,” Smith said. “When we don’t know another person that reinforces those stereotypes.”
Each year, the Columbus Area Arts Council presents a free program in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This year, the council welcomes the Seattle-based theater troupe Living Voices, who will present “The Right to Dream.”
Performed as a single-person play, “The Right to Dream” follows the journey of Raymond Hollis, a young African-American student who comes of age in a small Mississippi town during the civil rights movement.
Actor Brian Simmons, of New York, who portrays Hollis, said one of the most challenging things about his role was realizing he knew nothing about the environment and struggles of the civil rights movement.
“It is too easy to say, ‘Oh, it was in the 1960s,’” 26-year-old Simmons said. “When we think of civil rights, we think of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and other well-known leaders; we don’t think of those on the front lines who were just as courageous and powerful.”
The program offers a historical aspect that needs to be kept alive, said Karen Shrode, executive director of the Columbus Area Arts Council.
Having lived Athens, Ga., during the civil rights movement, Shrode recalls being called “yankee” and witnessing the racial and economic class system firsthand.
“Thank goodness kids today find that behavior really foreign to them,” Shrode said. “But the reality is there is still a lot of racism in the world; it just takes different forms.”
Overcoming prejudice and stereotypes in today’s society is something that requires vigilance, Smith said. Remembering history, avoiding complacency and looking ahead are keys to a better future.
“And for Columbus, we are building that road for a welcoming community,” Smith said. “We have to continue so 50 years from now we can say we truly are a welcoming community and there is no longer a fear of working, worshiping with or living next to someone who is different from yourself.”