Norwich speakers vow to fight bigotry

Norwich — More than 100 people representing diverse ethnic groups, religious and political affiliations stood outside Norwich City Hall on Tuesday evening and declared that hatred of any one of them would not be tolerated in their city.

Called a “Community Gathering for Unity, Clarity and Dispelling Darkness,” the hourlong event was held in response to the neo-Nazi and white supremacist rally that turned violent in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 12.

Speaker after speaker on Tuesday vowed to resist divisive messages of hate and intolerance, while also pledging to work harder at what Rabbi Julius Rabinowitz of Beth Jacob Synagogue called the “experiment of democracy.” Rabinowitz said hate and bigotry have been the more natural human traits through history, while the concepts of equality of race, religions and beliefs so vital to successful democracy are more recent.

Rabinowitz and Norwich NAACP branch President Dianne Daniels both said the racist violence in Charlottesville was not surprising, even though the Nazi flags and KKK emblems displayed so prominently shocked many Americans. As she did at a similar rally in New London on Aug. 13, Daniels read a statement issued by the national NAACP promising that the agency would be “steadfast and immovable in the fight against discrimination, prejudice and hatred — and we are not afraid.”

“These events may have been mortifying to you in the past week,” Rabinowitz said, “but to my community, they are not surprising.”

Norwich city Historian Dale Plummer said the events in Charlottesville might have happened hundreds of miles away, but Norwich, too, felt the sting of the KKK on Christmas Eve night in 1924, when Catholic worshipers exited Midnight Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral a few blocks from City Hall to find a local KKK group burning a cross on the lawn in the park across the street.

Plummer said Americans need to realize that many of the hundreds of statues and monuments honoring Confederate leaders — including Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson — were erected in a 40-year span beginning in the 1890s, not to honor war heroes, but to intimidate and oppress African-Americans and other minority groups. The Lee statue in Charlottesville was erected in 1924, he said, the same year as the Norwich KKK display.

Norwich Council President Pro Tempore and Republican mayoral candidate Peter Nystrom said Americans today should embrace role models such as Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy to overcome bigotry and discrimination.

“Silence is not acceptable,” Nystrom said. “That's why you're here. Hate-based statements and actions have no place in our country. Organized, deliberate attempts to bully and harm people tear away at the very fabric of our society based on our Judeo-Christian beliefs.”

Democratic mayoral candidate Derell Wilson could not attend, but sent along a written statement saying Norwich residents have a "moral obligation to ensure that racism does not hinder anyone's right to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness. Not in Norwich, not in Connecticut, not in these United States."

More than Judeo-Christian beliefs were represented at Tuesday's gathering. Judy Post spoke on behalf of the Baha'i community, a faith based on unity and peace. Swaranjit Singh Khalsa, representing the Sikh Sewak Society International, reminded the audience that five years ago in August, a Sikh temple was attacked in Wisconsin by a gunman, who killed six worshipers.

Sikhs worldwide marked the fifth anniversary by declaring Aug. 19 as World Humanitarian Day, devoted to doing at least one good deed that day in their communities, Singh Khalsa said.

“I think it would be nice if we all carry this celebration every day,” he said.

Participants paused near the conclusion of the event to hear the Norwich Freedom Bell, commissioned to mark the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, ring to honor the three people who died during the demonstrations in Charlottesville.

Heather Heyer, the Charlottesville protester countering the white supremacist groups, was killed when white supremacist James A. Fields allegedly slammed his vehicle into the crowd. Virginia state Trooper Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates died when their helicopter crashed as they were patrolling over the protests.

The bell was rung a fourth time, three times in rapid succession, for the city of Norwich and for liberty.

c.bessette@theday.com

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