The Town That Fought Hatred
A true story about an American town has become a play that teaches children about goodness and courage.
BY: Janice I. Cohn
--Editorial, Billings Gazette, Dec. 1993
In a world filled with fear, how can young people learn courage? In a world filled with violence, how can young people learn peaceful solutions? In a world filled with religious and racial division, how can young people learn unity and cooperation?
Children learn in many ways: sometimes by example, sometimes by the power of a compelling story, and sometimes by the realization that human beings can be capable of extraordinary acts of courage and goodness.
All three elements came together in Billings, Montana, during the holiday season of 1993.
No one knew why it started, but 12 years ago the town of Billings began to be infiltrated by skinheads and members of racist groups. The tiny minority of Jews, African Americans, and mixed-race families who lived there were immediately targeted for acts of hate. Though the vast majority of residents were white and Christian, they chose to take a principled stand based upon their conviction that an act of hate toward one citizen was an act of hate toward all. Many individuals and groups rose up to respond. For example, the Billings Painters Union offered to repaint for free any houses or businesses that had been spray painted with racial or religious epithets. And members of churches with predominantly white congregations came to the African Methodist Episcopal Church to pray with black neighbors when menacing skinheads began to show up at church services.
But then, as the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah approached, Jews became a special target. Windows in Jewish homes displaying Hanukkah menorahs began to be smashed. Jewish families were advised to remove their menorahs until the perpetrators were caught, but they resisted. And so menorahs continued to be displayed and windows continued to be smashed. Ultimately, in a show of solidarity and support, tens of thousands of Billings residents displayed paper menorahs in their windows.
What gives people the courage to fight against hatred and the wisdom to understand just how important that fight is? What causes some communities to come together when faced with acts of bigotry and violence, while other communities split apart? In Billings, it was a combination of factors including:
Along with many other people, I was deeply moved by these events 12 years ago. As a practicing psychotherapist specializing in loss and life transitions, I'd witnessed the power of courage and goodness firsthand. I'd seen how those traits could enable individuals to surmount life's greatest challenges. But here was an entire community acting together on the highest principle of loving your neighbor as yourself. How did this happen, and what could we all learn from the events in Billings?