Neely Young: A New Profile In Courage

Our Georgia Legislature has concluded its 2011 session with our elected lawmakers having passed what some call racial, anti-immigration legislation. The target of this punitive legislation is primarily Hispanics because they are a minority and some have broken the law by entering the U.S. illegally.

Let’s hope our leaders’ actions are not meant to be racial in nature. As our history will show, this has never been Georgia’s way of managing minority issues.

Next year the legislature should take a more rational approach to this issue as we have seen in Utah, where their Republican-controlled legislature took a Ronald Reagan-inspired, saner path. More about that later.

The late William F. Buckley believed that racial prejudice was more about numbers than race. He pointed to the fact that one of the most persecuted peoples in America was the Irish, who came to America as a result of the Irish Potato Famine in the 1860s. It is interesting to note that judging by the names, 40 percent or more of our legislative delegation are of Scot-Irish descent.

In Georgia, the Irish example today has been replaced by the estimated 400,000 undocumented Hispanics living in our midst.

As to the charge that many broke the law by coming here, it’s true. But laws have been broken and then reversed many times in our past.

A schoolteacher named John Scopes broke a law in 1925 when he taught evolution in his classroom in Dayton, Tenn. Scopes was a member of an intellectual minority who believed that he should teach his students to think and learn different opinions.

Scopes was arrested, tried and convicted of breaking a Tennessee law against teaching evolution in public schools. This law was later changed.

A black woman riding a bus in Montgomery Ala., broke the law when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger.

Rosa Parks made history when she was arrested and thrown in jail, because she violated a Jim Crow Alabama law that was used to repress minority blacks in the South. And this law was later changed.

Georgia has a long list of leaders who resisted the tendency to repress minorities. This is one of the reasons that over the past 80 years Georgia has prospered and grown faster than any of our southern neighbor states.

Companies with minority employees come to Georgia because they feel safe and because they believe it is a good place to raise a family.

During the reconstruction era in the second half of the 19th century, Atlanta Constitution Editor Henry W. Grady promoted harmony between the races as a method of bringing Georgia forward as the “New South,” offering a spirit of racial tolerance and economic opportunity.

In 1913, Leo Frank, a member of a minority group in Georgia, was convicted of murdering a little girl named Mary Fagan – the conviction came mainly because he was Jewish.

Georgia’s Governor John Slaton commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. Later, angry citizens took charge, kidnapping Frank from prison and hanging him near the present location of the Big Chicken in Marietta.

Gov. Slaton had the courage to stand up and do the right thing. He was one example cited in John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage. Leo Frank was pardoned in 1986.

Perhaps the greatest leader of them all was Gov. Ernest Vandiver, who ensured that the University of Georgia remained open when the first two African-American students enrolled in our all-white college.

About the same time, Gov. George Wallace was standing at the front of the University of Alabama blocking the entrance to keep that system all white, and Bull Connor was unleashing police dogs and training fire hoses on African Americans in Birmingham for the same racial reasons.

In the next election, Georgia rejected radical, racial policies by electing a young governor named Carl Sanders who ran against an arch-segregationist and former governor named Marvin Griffin.

Georgia stood tall during some troubled times and earned a national reputation for promoting tolerance among the races. All of our governors since, even Lester Maddox, have promoted Georgia as a tolerant state in the same spirit of Henry Grady.

And we should not forget in this tumultuous time one of our greatest presidents once promoted a program that gave general amnesty to 2.8 million law-abiding Hispanics and other foreign-born individuals living illegally in America.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was the brainchild of President Ronald Reagan, and it was one of his proudest achievements.

Reagan’s greatness stemmed from the fact he had not one prejudiced bone in his body. He also promoted the idea of open borders with Mexico and Canada, so their citizens could come into the United States without any documents or papers.

Just think of the trouble we could have avoided if we had heeded his advice.

Let’s hope our legislative leaders will stand tall in the 2012 session and introduce similar Ronald Reagan-style legislation.

Utah’s legislature passed a bill that extended recognition to illegal immigrants and included a guest worker program that would allow unauthorized foreigners to work legally in their state.

This same approach could be championed by some brave Georgia soul, but it will take a real profile in courage to do so.

Such an approach would be good for business in this state, and it would be the right thing to do. It would make Henry Grady and a lot of other courageous Georgians proud.

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