From my tiny New England town, I am cheering the tiny Kentucky town of Berea.
Until this past week, the only thing I could have told you for sure about Kentucky was that Abraham Lincoln was born there. I couldn’t have named Kentucky’s capital (Frankfort). I couldn’t have told you that Berea, Ky., is one of the fastest growing cities in the country, or that it was founded more than 150 years ago as an intentionally interracial town, where blacks and whites would live side by side. And I would not have guessed that in this little slice of Madison County, an entire population would stop its everyday comings and goings and rally behind an interracial couple victimized by racism.
On July 7, Damon Dunson and his girlfriend, Melanie Stamper, woke up to find the cars in their driveway spray-painted with racial slurs. According to Dunson, the word n***er was spelled three different ways. Dunson is black; Stamper is white. Most of the messages were directed at her, telling her to leave town.
In the two weeks since then, here’s what’s happened: A town resident named Mae Suramek walked to a local bank and set up a fund to raise money for the insurance deductible on the cars. A body shop owner in a nearby town offered to donate his time and labor to fix the cars. More than 40 residents invited the couple to a potluck dinner to talk about the incident and, according to Suramek, “make it known as a community that this would not be tolerated.”
Now, a group of citizens has asked the city council to establish a human rights commission. In doing so, they urged the city not to view the vandalism as an isolated incident, but as an opportunity to examine quieter, more pervasive forms of racism that go unnoticed. Their leaders have heard them: the mayor denounced the act as cowardly and deplorable. The president of Berea College threw the weight of the entire institution behind the couple, writing an open letter in support of them last week.
Every state has its stereotypes: Massachusetts is supposedly the land of ivory-tower intellectuals and die-hard liberals. Kentucky is supposedly the land of back-country rednecks and don’t-stop-for-gas-at-night-if-you’re-black racism. But looks can be deceiving. Here is a bluegrass state whose abolitionist founder built a church, school system and entire municipality on the principle of racial “interspersion,” a town whose college board of trustees passed a resolution allowing interracial dating in the 1880s.
A former colleague of mine, reflecting on the courage of protesters during the 1960s, once pondered whether she would ever be brave enough to stand up in the face of injustice. The sad truth is, many more people than we’d like to believe lack the courage to stick their necks out when they are witness to bigotry. I don’t want to take sides. I wish you weren’t so angry about this. I’m sorry it happened, but there’s really nothing I can do. That’s as true in the liberal lap of New England as it is in the Kentucky hills. But today, the ordinary people of Berea, Ky., want everyone to know: It is not the truth about them.