NYT- Front Page Article - January 20, 1997
Front Page, New York Times, January 20, 1997
An Effort to Honor Dr. King Moves a Mostly White Town
By SARA RIMER
This is a story of reflections and revelations about race in an unexpected place: a nearly all-white town in a nearly all-white state that is the only one in the nation that does not have a day for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It began last fall, when a determined 18-year-old student, Gautam Venkatesan, arrived at Phillips Exeter Academy here and overheard two black classmates talking about how New Hampshire had no official holiday honoring King.
''I said, 'I can't believe this is happening in America,' '' recalled Mr. Venkatesan, who was born in southern India and raised outside Seattle and whose dormitory room is filled with books on Gandhi and King.
Although New Hampshire does have a Civil Rights Day and there is a statewide movement to adopt a King holiday, Mr. Venkatesan set out to get the Board of Selectmen to proclaim Martin Luther King Day in the 20 square miles of this town near the seacoast. Making his rounds on his bicycle, he won the support of many of Exeter's 13,600 residents, of whom 54 are black, according to the latest Census. His supporters included the Chamber of Commerce, the local clergy, The Exeter News-Letter, the academy and the police chief, James Gilmore.
Chief Gilmore, for one, wrote an extraordinarily personal letter to the board of selectmen.
''I recall as a teen-ager making a demeaning, racial comment to a local black man,'' he wrote. ''Although troubled by my own behavior, it took almost two decades before I apologized to him, shortly before his death. Ironically, he didn't even remember the incident. My comment had apparently caused more pain and inner turmoil for me than it had for him, and rightly so!''
The chief's letter was part of a packet Mr. Venkatesan presented to the selectmen on Jan. 13, along with a heartfelt plea, delivered rapid-fire to cram as much as possible into his allotted five minutes.
For Selectman Paul Binette, the presentation jogged his memory of the visit in 1989-90 by the Ku Klux Klan, which failed to generate support and eventually moved away.
''It came right back to me the day the K.K.K. held a big demonstration,'' he said. ''They were marching with the hoods right in front of Exeter Town Hall. It was very upsetting to me personally.''
For the Rev. Robert Thompson, the minister at Exeter Academy, the effort to get the town to celebrate Martin Luther King Day reminded him of how he and the three other black men on the faculty had affirmed their support for the Million Man March in October 1995. Dressed in traditional African garb, they staged the Four Man March, as they called it, walking leisurely down Front Street, and stopping in at the Exeter Inn for drinks.
''All of us are over six foot tall,'' Mr. Thompson said. ''There were a couple of strange looks. There was this one car that kind of slowed down and pulled over, and just sat there. We went over and said, 'Can we help you?' ''
The young white male passengers grinned and said nothing, Mr. Thompson said. ''They were just stupefied by the image of us.''
Carol Walker Aten, the director of Exeter's nonprofit American Independence Museum, wrote a letter to the board saying the holiday would be one way for the town to begin learning about its largely forgotten racial history.
According to Census records from 1767, Ms. Aten wrote in her letter, British settlers in Exeter owned 50 slaves. In 1790, the records show, 81 freed slaves were living in Exeter, more free blacks than anywhere else in New Hampshire, accounting for nearly 5 percent of the town's population, Ms. Aten said.
By the mid-1800's, with the textile mills expanding, Exeter was home to French Canadian and European immigrants.
The white immigrants went to work in the mills. But blacks, who could read and write, were able to find only menial labor jobs. And so they began to leave Exeter for larger cities of New England and other places where they could find jobs as well as social acceptance, Ms. Aten wrote in her letter.
In an interview, Chief Gilmore recalled in more detail the episode that he described in his letter.
''I used the word nigger,' he said ruefully, adding that it was not a word he would have heard at home.
He was with a group of his friends when the black man, whose name was Jim Davis, drove by in his car. ''I hollered the slur at him,'' Chief Gilmore recalled. ''I was just being a wise guy, just being cool. I knew the instant I said it it was wrong. But I did it.''
''I don't know if he recognized me, but every time I saw him over the years it would just eat at me,'' he added. ''I guess over the years I became friends with black families in town. I was a police officer. It had bothered me for so many years, and then the opportunity presented itself. We met on the street. I was not on duty. I went up to him, and told him who I was, and what I said, and I was here to apolgize. He accepted the apology, but he honestly didn't remember it.''
They shook hands, Chief Gilmore said. Mr. Davis died within the year. Growing up in Exeter, Chief Gilmore said, there were few opportunities to get to know black people. Then, as a young man, he left home and joined the Army. ''I came into contact with a lot of black people,'' he said. ''They were very, very nice people.''
When he returned home, he enrolled in college, and began to read about slavery and the abolitionists and, as it unfolded, the civil rights movement. ''I learned about what people had been through, that blacks in this country had had a rough life,'' he said. ''I remember reading all I could about Martin Luther King.''
In his letter to the selectmen, Chief Gilmore wrote: ''At some point in my life, so gradual a process I cannot pinpoint an exact moment, I realized the principles of fairness and equality espoused in our Constitution do not always extend to everyone. Martin Luther King Jr. sought improvement through social change.''
After Mr. Venkatesan's speech, the board voted 4-to-1 to approve the proclamation. The dissenting selectman, Robert K. Rowe, said: ''Civil Rights Day is adequate. Until New Hampshire proclaims Martin Luther King Day, I will not support this.''
Mr. Venkatesan was pleased, and exhausted. He had been for several nights running, writing his speech. ''Anything can happen,'' he said. ''Anybody can change.''
Gautam P. Venkatesan's Blog
Posted on December 11, 2008 at 12:39am
I love discussion of Gandhi and King. Step one is to study them. Step two is to apply. While most of America never gets to step one, those of us who do, rarely get to step two. There are too many important fights in America at this hour to get caught at step one. Medicine, Technology, Economics, Education, Anthropology & Culture, Sociology- the future of civil rights in this country is at stake. I would love to hear what people think are going to be the next movements that we will see on… Continue