Opening Remarks, Civil Rights Team Conference

May 3, 2010

Attorney General Janet T. Mills

Augusta Civic Center

Today we celebrate civil rights—ours, yours, everybody’s, for in this country, we all have civil rights.

Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Our lives begin to end the day we remain silent about things that matter.”

You are among those who refuse to remain silent. You have chosen to speak up. And today we celebrate you.

You are the leaders of our state—not tomorrow’s leaders, but today’s. You are leading our state to become the most welcoming, the most tolerant state in the nation.

You are teaching your schools, your neighbors and your communities the values and the power of respect and tolerance.

I am especially gratified that you have been able to hear directly from survivors of genocide--the European Holocaust and the Sudanese Darfur tragedy. These survivors are true heroes. And their history is hard to hear.

Learning from the tragedies of our human history is always difficult but always necessary.

In the history books, in the museums, we clean up hatred; we dress it up, we measure it in statistics; we bronze it, paint it, frame it, sterilize it.

But the sounds of hate—the screams of victims, the burning of flesh, the roar of muddy tanks rolling into an unsuspecting village, the sound of a plane crashing deliberately into a high rise, the sight of an office worker jumping from the twin towers or Anne Frank hauled off to a concentration camp—these are sights and sounds we should never wish to see or hear again.

I think back to earlier this year, to Friday, January 8, 2010.
I am fresh off the redeye flight from Newark NJ to Tel Aviv.
A small group of Attorneys General drive through the hills to the beautiful City of Jerusalem.

The sun is too too bright. The earth bronzed. The buildings awash in limestone, with brandy colored roofs.

“Yad Vashem,” our first stop, the Holocaust museum, located on a ridge called the “Mount of Remembrances,” is a memorial to the six million Jews killed by the Nazis in World War II.

The museum, prism-shaped like a Toblerone candy bar, a large whitish envelope that juts out from the ground, opening onto a high ridge hanging over the new city. The inner chamber grabs you, draws you in, confronts you with the hard reality of war, the brutality of a history we would rather not believe—the books, the chairs, the journals and photos of so many dead and honorable human beings, films of their villages, narratives of their lives.

Just when you think you can see no more of these things, you enter the separate small museum behind the large one surrounded by evocative sculptures.

The “Children’s Memorial” is dedicated to the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered during the Holocaust. It is silent, somber and starkly beautiful.

Imagine, 1.5 million children—More children were murdered by the Nazis than there are people in the whole State of Maine—It is the population of the State of Maine plus another 300,000 people! And for more than a third of these children we don’t even know their names.

You enter this structure in total darkness, you grab a guard rail and feel your way, then you are captured by an infinite number of twinkling lights above, as a narrator slowly recites the names, ages and countries of origin of the known victims. There are no steps or turns. There is no escape from this dark tunnel, just as there was no escape for any of those 1.5 million young people.

I can tell you, this was an experience I will never forget.

Today you are hearing from survivors of this and another holocaust,…lest we as a society forget, lest we not learn from the past in every possible way, lest we no longer see those twinkling stars, remember them in our hearts and recall the tragedy they represent.

Today is also a day of joy.

Today we celebrate what so many imaginative young people of great good will have accomplished throughout our state in the past several years. And we celebrate our new residents from other countries.

What do our new neighbors bring to us, including those people who came here fleeing war and torture and the deaths of friends and family members?

They bring new culture, new clothes, new language, new styles. Things to be enjoyed. Things to be appreciated.

Students across this state have invented new ways of celebrating the contributions of our new Mainers and ways of speaking up and standing up to injustice, to hatred, to bias:

Students from Calais to Jay to Presque Isle are standing up to cyberbullying.

In Jay, the new “Buddy or Bully Boxes” have collected more than 250 comments, many of them applauding people who are buddies, emphasizing positive student behavior and at the same time reporting on bullying and other negative behaviors.

The great African American poet and performer Maya Angelou, who spoke here in this hall just a week ago, once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

You know that making other people feel good about themselves is a big step towards combating hatred and bullying which can so terribly damage people’s lives.

The Lewiston Middle School civil rights team wrote a student bill of rights and made that bill of rights come alive in their school.

The Whitefield Elementary School held their first-ever “Diversity Day.”

Hall-Dale Elementary School turned their civil rights messages into a book, “Problems for Billy,” which makes people look at their behavior and attitudes about children with autism and those with behavioral disabilities.

Students from Brownfield and Marion C. Cook LaGrange Elementary Schools commemorated Martin Luther King’s birthday with a puppet presentation of his speech at the Bangor Mall.

In Belfast and in other schools, the “Not in Our School” campaign is changing the mindset that allows bullying in any form—a simple reminder of how to respond to name-calling and how to end hate speech in our schools, a zero tolerance response to name-calling.

One assembly speaker in Belfast noted:

“Although hate is a powerful force in our world, it doesn’t take any strength of character to hate. It doesn’t take any real strength to put others down: to insult, belittle or bully…

But you have to be strong to stop hate….It takes enormous strength to not go along with the crowd….It takes guts to stand up and say, ‘No, that’s not right.’… It takes courage and strength to stop hate.”

Other schools have adopted the “Birmingham pledge,” named for Birmingham, Alabama, where they started a commitment that has caught on around the globe to end prejudice in our lives.

Civil rights days in some schools have looked at gender stereotyping and jobs – why is it we have so few women plumbers, electricians, roofers, contractors, women bosses---and so few men kindergarten teachers, nurses, secretaries; why is that jobs are categorized as “men’s work” or “women’s work?!”

Freedom from discrimination is a civil right; so is freedom from domestic violence and sexual assault. You know that a healthy relationship is the core to positive self-esteem and personal progress; unhealthy relationships are demeaning and damaging, sometimes permanently.

Today we celebrate the actions of hundreds of students—many of whom are in this room. But as wonderful and fun as these things are, we know that we can do better.

The Attorney General’s Office documented 74 reported incidents of hate crimes in Maine in 2009 alone, more than half of them based on race, about a third of them based on sexual orientation. Our Civil Rights Project, with your help, is dedicated to reducing that number to zero.

You and I know: We are not trained to hate. We are born to love. We should always celebrate our differences, discover them, learn from them.

We in this room are pledged always to focus on the positive. Hate mongering, rumor, stereotyping, trash talk—that stuff is all around us – in the media, in on line commentaries, in blogs and in bathroom graffiti. We can and will resist it. We can and will speak up against it.

We will think, at every turn—“How would we want someone to treat us in this situation?” And we will strive to treat others the way we would want them to treat us.

We should never jump to conclusions about how a person looks, how they talk, how they dress, where they come from.

You know, there was something called the “Genome Project,” a scientific study which recently examined the thousands and thousands of strands of DNA which form the chemical makeup of all humans. This project found that people of all human races have genes that are 99.99% alike.

In other words, we all share the same genes. Less than one percent of our genetic makeup actually makes us different from other people.

Racial differences, for instance, are genetically insignificant.

(Who is it here who has the t-shirts that say, “Laundry is the only thing that should be separated by color?!” How true!)

What are those very minor differences and how do we see them?

Some have hair that curls, some have hair that lies straight.
Some are tall, some are short. Some of us dance better than others.
Some of us cook, some grow a garden, throw a baseball, swim a river, ski down a mountain. Some like dogs and cats, some do not. Some can skate, snowboard or rollerblade; while others just haven’t had the chance to learn.

To all of you—and to those who are not here today—
Always be vigilant. Speak up for tolerance.

Remember, in the words of the African American activist Stoakley Carmichael: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

It was another prominent American, Robert F. Kennedy, who said, “Some see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say, why not!”

For me, I will always see those thousands of stars in a dark chamber, and say, “Why? Why?” But then, I look at you. I see the stars in your eyes. I see the future…And I say, “Why not!”

So, enjoy each other. Laugh with each other. Keep speaking up.

Help others to allay their fears and find new friends who give us:
New eyes for seeing,
New hands for holding on,
New feelings,
New corners of our hearts to find more love than we ever knew.

Thank you. And keep up the great work!