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A Human Rights Message for International School Students

By David Greenberg
A Human Rights Message for International School Students

At an international school in Central Africa, among whose students was the daughter of the country’s President, a middle schooler with brown skin asks: “Do you really mean that if I lived in the United States before 1865, I would have been a slave?” She is incredulous and indignant at my answer.
“Not necessarily,” I reply, “but there’s a high probability that you would have been.”
At a school in Germany with a diverse student body, one student says: “I’m one part black and three parts white. I look white, but would they have considered me black? Would they have made me drink from a separate water fountain?”
Eyes widen when I respond, “Not for certain, but there’s a good chance.”
In the Middle East, after describing the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a student asks, “But why didn’t the police stop them?”
Students gasp when I tell them that often, alas, the police themselves and the local judiciary were in fact members of the KKK. Joining the KKK in America years ago was as common in many places as joining a PTA or Rotary Club.
As I tell the story of my historical novel, A Tugging String (Dutton, 2008), which describes conditions in America leading up to Dr. King’s Selma–Montgomery march and the change wrought by it, children listen intently. Students at international schools—typically of privilege, and quite often of color—are outraged at the human rights violations in America only the shortest time ago (and now beginning to percolate yet again). It is clear that most have an intrinsic moral sense encompassing themselves as well as the downtrodden. Privileged as most may be, they want a fair world.
When I describe how Dr. King, assisted by many—including my father, who was his chief attorney—used peaceful means to challenge the racist status quo and radically change the physics of race relations in America, they often cheer.
Most children I encounter, even in earth’s furthermost corners, have some knowledge of American civil rights history. Even among third-grade students, most will raise their hands if I ask whether they know of Rosa Parks. Almost everyone, even in Chinese boarding schools, knows Martin Luther King, Jr. However, it seems that this knowledge is academic, not visceral. Perhaps because of my father’s work* and my close view of it, the story I tell hits them with particular impact and prompts a strong emotional response.
In these sessions, we discuss the fact that we encounter all sorts of bullies in life—schoolwide, locally, nationally, internationally—and we explore the relevance of Dr. King’s message, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
We discuss how we, too, have a responsibility, particularly in these times of hateful rhetoric, to speak up in the face of those who bully, tease, and worse. It’s often difficult and scary to step up, nor can we always do it, but only if we speak out for decency and justice can it prevail in our countries and in our world.
It’s not uncommon that following my assemblies, students will tell me that the event has given him or her the courage to stand up strong and speak out. More than once a student has identified him or herself as gay, and told me that they’ve been inspired to stay strong, to join a group, or to speak out.
With little ones, to whom I offer a vastly simplified version of this talk, we discuss the need to be nice and kind to others and to speak out (if we can) when we or others are teased or bullied. We discuss the need for non-violence. Recently, after one such assembly, the principal told me that a second-grade student came to her to say that he was being abused and he was speaking out because Mr. Greenberg said not to be silent.
International students will, in only a short while, take the batons of power and influence. Many—such as the daughter of that president in Central Africa—live in countries where human rights are far from guaranteed.
They will have to wrestle with how to bring justice in their time. Martin Luther King’s example, set forth in many books, including my own, can influence them and assist them in doing taking on these issues. We help to fortify a moral world by highlighting his work. l
*David’s father was a protégé of Thurgood Marshall, who argued Brown v. Board, along with the case overriding Governor Wallace’s order forbidding the Selma-Montgomery march.

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