* Code added to make Google search more likely. Mississippi Civil Rights--One Man, One Story: Must not, cannot forget early efforts in racial reconciliation

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Must not, cannot forget early efforts in racial reconciliation

(Note: The following guest column appeared in the Nov. 19th issue of the Clarion-Ledger. It was written by T. W. Lewis, a former (or is that still current) Millsaps professor whom I like quite a bit. This is the type thing that I've encourage the Clarion-Ledger to include when they look back at the 1960's, but they are very reluctant to write about anything positive. I don't think they realize the harm they do by only telling half of the story.)

Around 11 p.m. on Nov. 19, 1967, a terrorist's bomb exploded on the front steps of a home at the corner of Poplar Boulevard and St. Mary. Bob Kochtitzky, his wife, and a house guest had moments earlier retired to the upstairs bedrooms and barely escaped the force of the blast which blew through the downstairs.

The Kochtitzkys' infant son was saved from serious injury by the headboard of his crib which shielded him from the shattered window glass that sprayed the room. The bombing was the culmination of a series of hostile actions toward the Kochtitizkys that included a cross being burned on their front lawn.

The Kochtitzkys were the first non-black family in Jackson so attacked by the Klan. How did they become a target?

A seminary-trained layperson, Bob was the creator and director of Layman's Overseas Service, an organization with a two-fold mission. It sought to place laypersons for short-term service in Third World countries where their skills and graces could be utilized in positive ways. For example, a physician took a sabbatical from his practice in Huntsville, Ala., and moved his family to Bolivia where he ran a clinic for a year in a community with limited medical services. The other aim, which for Bob was equally important, was to connect volunteers with people in cultures different from their own with the hope of enlarging the volunteers' view of the world in which they lived.

Bob's home on Poplar Boulevard served as his office, and it was there his board of directors held their meetings, attended on occasion by persons from the black community. When the Society of Friends (Quakers) sent representatives to Mississippi in response to the burning of black churches, it was Bob who got them together with black pastors and concerned white leaders to form what was to become the Committee of Concern.

The purpose of the group was to raise money to restore burned black churches. Jack Nelson in his book Terror in the Night states that the "Kochtitzkys had occasionally had blacks as house guests." He writes also that news reports cited Bob as originating the idea of the "walk of penance" following the bombing of Temple Beth Israel on Sept. 18.

Furthermore, Nelson reports that a White Citizens Council newspaper alleged a meeting between Stokley Carmichael and Robert Kennedy at the Kochtitzkys' home. That could have sealed the Klan's decision to use the bomb.

Bob's calling was to build bridges across racial and cultural lines at a time when public political and economic policy was to enforce separation.

He was committed to maintaining relationships with non-whites, and he did so in public places. For example, he joined a Lutheran pastor in eating with black friends at a local motel-restaurant. In those days, few within the white community were willing to speak and act publicly for racial reconciliation. According to Nelson, the morning after the bombing Bob's pastor at Galloway Memorial Methodist Church, acknowledging his own reluctance to speak out, quoted Abraham Lincoln: "To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men." The pastor was not only speaking for himself but also for others who shared Bob's beliefs, but held them only in private.

Although the local newspaper printed a picture of the damaged Kochtitzky home with the sign posted at the door: "KEEP THE FAITH, BABY," it did not editorialize against the bombings and burnings in the community and state.

Some today may ask, "Why can't we just put those days behind us, forget that dark past, and get on with life?" The question is how we put those days behind us. We must not forget because that past is a measure of what a culture had become. It is also a warning of what happens when citizens in the face of oppression and injustice "sin by silence." Memory can help us avoid "getting on" with a life that does not recognize who one's neighbors are nor honor one's neighbors as one wishes to be honored.

Years later. Bob traveled with Kenneth Dean, a former director of the Mississippi Human Relations Council, to Canton to inspect tornado damage. While there Dean introduced Bob to a trusty from Parchman. The latter had volunteered to assist with the relief work in Canton. As the two met each realized who the other was. The repentant bomber and the forgiving victim found the grace to relate to each other as fellow human beings.

In a season when events of terror and bravery 40 years ago are being commemorated, it is fitting to remember also the event of Nov. 19, 1967 - how a man and his family suffered the consequences of attempting to build relationships across racial divides in what one writer has called a "closed society." It is fitting because the challenge of reconciling those who are alienated is forever with us.

(One more note: I wrote T.W. after reading this column and he wrote back saying how my dad had told T.W. that my dad and "his boys" (Will, Fred, and I) were driving around the neighborhood around 10 o'clock each night when the police shift changed and the bombings were occuring. We lived 3 blocks from the Kochtitzkys' home and T.W. lived between the Kochtizkys' and our house. We were getting bomb threats at the time and apparently T.W. was also getting threats.)

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