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A Profile of Courage

  • Date: 05/10/2003
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (p.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Let me share some remarkable words. They were spoken in a matter that will be celebrated this coming Monday, when former State Legislator Dan Ponder, Jr. of Georgia will receive the 2003 Profile in Courage award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.
    This special award is given to those public figures who have demonstrated the courage to put political expediency aside and act on the basis of their values to do what is right.

    As it happens, one of the previous winners of this award spoke from this same podium two weeks ago when he gave the Dorothy Garrett Martin Memorial Delta Gamma Lectureship on Values and Ethics.

    You see, former President Gerald Ford was awarded the Profile in Courage award for his controversial pardon of Richard Nixon.

    Mr. Ponder's selection for the 2003 Profile in Courage award grew out of an extraordinary speech that he delivered on March 16, 2000 to Georgia lawmakers.

    His remarks addressed a controversial piece of pending legislation dealing with hate crimes.

    I will share just a few excerpts, and I quote:

    "I am probably the last person, the most unlikely person that you would expect to be speaking from the well about Hate Crime Legislation . . . I am a White Republican, who lives in the very Southwest corner of the most ultra-conservative part of this state. I have agricultural roots. I grew up hunting and fishing. I had guns when I was a kid. On my 12th birthday I was given that thing that so many southern boys receive, that shotgun from my dad that somehow marked me as a man."
    (Representative Dan Ponder, Jr., Speech to the Georgia Legislature on Hate-Crimes Legislation SB390, March 16, 2000)

    "I was raised in a conservative Baptist church. I went to a large, mostly white Southern university. I lived in and was the President of the largest, totally white fraternity on that campus. I had nine separate Great-Great-Great Grandfathers that fought for the Confederacy. I don't have a single ancestor on all of my family lines that lived north of the Mason-Dixon line going back to the Revolutionary War. And it is not something that I am terribly proud of, but it is just part of my heritage, that not one, but several of those lines actually owned slaves."
    (Ponder, Ibid)

    "So you would guess just by listening to my background that I am going to stand up here and talk against hate crime legislation. But you see, that's the problem when you start stereotyping people by who they are and where they came from, because..."
    (Ponder, Ibid)

    "...hate has no discrimination when it picks its victims. I have a Catholic brother-in-law. My sister could not be married in their church, and his priest refused to marry them because they were of different faiths."
    (Ponder, Ibid)

    "I have a Jewish brother-in-law. The difference in that religion has caused part of my family to be estranged from each other for over 25 years."
    (Ponder, Ibid)

    " . . . I myself have also known fear, because I am a white man that was mugged and robbed in Chicago in a black neighborhood."
    (Ponder, Ibid)

    "And you are right. It is a terror that never goes away. It doesn't end when the wounds heal or the dollars are replaced in your wallet. It is something that you live with the rest of your life."
    (Ponder, Ibid)

    "But I want to tell you the real reason that I am standing here today. And this is personal...so I hope that you will just listen to this part for me."
    (Ponder, Ibid)

    "There was one woman in my life that made a huge difference and her name was Mary Ward. She began working for my family before I was born. She was a young black woman whose own grandmother raised my mother. Mary, or May-Mar as I called her, came every morning before I was awake to cook breakfast so it would be on the table. She cooked our lunch. She washed our clothes."
    (Ponder, Ibid)

    "But she was much more than that. She read books to me. When I was playing Little League she would go out and catch ball with me. She was never, ever afraid to discipline me or spank me. She expected the absolute best out of me, perhaps, and I am sure, even more than she did her own children."
    (Ponder, Ibid)

    "One day, when I was about 12 or 13 I was leaving for school. As I was walking out the door she turned to kiss me goodbye. And for some reason, I turned my head. She stopped me and she looked into my eyes with a look that absolutely burns in my memory right now and she said, "You didn't kiss me because I am black." At that instant, I knew that she was right."
    (Ponder, Ibid)

    "I denied it. I made some lame excuse about it. But I was forced at that age to confront a small dark part of myself. I don't even know where it came from. This lady, who was devoting her whole life to me and my brother and sister, who loved me unconditionally, who had changed my diapers and fed me, and who was truly my second mother, that somehow she wasn't worthy of a goodbye kiss simply because of the color of her skin."
    (Ponder, Ibid)

    "Hate is all around us. It takes shape and form in ways that are somehow so small that we don't even recognize them to begin with, until they somehow become acceptable to us."
    (Ponder, Ibid)

    "I have lived with the shame and memory of my betrayal of Mary Ward's love for me. I pledged to myself then and I re-pledged to myself the day I buried her that never, ever again would I look in the mirror and know that I had kept silent, and let hate or prejudice or indifference negatively impact a person's life, even if I didn't know them."
    (Ponder, Ibid)

    "Likewise, my wife and I promised to each other on the day that our oldest daughter was born that we would raise our children to be tolerant. That we would raise them to accept diversity and to celebrate it. In our home, someone's difference would never be a reason for injustice."
    (Ponder, Ibid)

    "Hate crimes are about sending a message. The cross that was burned in a black person's yard not so many years ago was a message to black people."
    (Ponder, Ibid)

    "The gay person that is bashed walking down the sidewalk in midtown is a message to gay people."
    (Ponder, Ibid)

    "And the Jews that have endured thousands of years of persecution were all being sent messages over and over again."
    (Ponder, Ibid)

    "I would say to you that now is our turn to send a message. I am not a lawyer, I don't know how difficult it would be to prosecute this or even care. I don't really care that anyone is ever prosecuted under this bill."
    (Ponder, Ibid)

    "But I do care that we take this moment in time, in history, to say that we are going to send a message."
    (Ponder, Ibid)

    I believe that we must send a message to people that are filled with hate in this world, that Georgia has no room for hatred within its borders. It is a message that we can send to the people of this state, but it is also a message that you have to send to yourself."
    (Ponder, Ibid)

    Before Dan Ponder spoke, the Georgia House of Representatives was so divided that all that could be expected was a shelving of the hate crime legislation.
    Yet, "when Rep. Ponder finished he received thunderous ovation from both sides of the political aisle, black and white lawmakers alike. The Georgia House then reversed itself and passed the hate crimes bill." by an overwhelming majority.
    (Albert Hunt, "A Courageous Profile," Politics and People, The Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2003, p. A19)

    As part of your experience here at The University of Akron, you have met people from diverse backgrounds, races and nationalities -- some quite different from your own.

    As you now go forward, I hope that you will sustain the relationships you have made and that you will broaden your horizons still some more.

    Indeed, It is my fervent hope that you, too, like Georgia's Dan Ponder, will have the courage of your convictions, and that you will find solutions to problems through shared knowledge and an understanding of others.

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