Universal Declaration of Human Rights celebrated in Northampton with call to continue confronting racism

Last modified: Saturday, December 14, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — A celebration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was on full display here Tuesday night as local champions of human rights and social justice marked the document’s 65th anniversary.

The event drew more than 100 people and local officials to the Unitarian Society of Northampton & Florence on Main Street, many of whom read each of the 30 articles of the declaration the United National General Assembly adopted on Dec. 10, 1948.

The assembly featured a keynote address by Josh Miller, a professor at the Smith College School for Social Work, who spoke about the country’s history of racism, which he said is a problem that continues to permeate American society.

“Racism is still very much with us,” Miller said. “It’s part of this country’s DNA at birth ... a persistent strain.”

Miller pointed out that the United States is one of the few countries in the world whose currency prominently displays the images of leaders who were “slaveholders and genocidists.” Of the country’s first 12 presidents, only two, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, were not slaveholders, he said.

Miller said even at Smith College, which for the past 20 years has shown its commitment with an anti-racism task force, African-American professors report being challenged in the classrooms by students questioning their credibility.

As a white man and longtime professor at the college, “I have never been challenged that way,” said Miller, whose professional interests focus on anti-racism work.

The evening featured several musical performances, including the first public appearance by the newly formed Northampton Community Music Center Children’s Choir. Along the walls of one side of the Unitarian Society were colorful art works by 5th graders at Leeds Elementary School, depicting images reflecting the human rights messages in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Throughout the 90-minute event, speakers made repeated reference to anti-apartheid activist and human rights icon Nelson Mandela whose memorial service was Tuesday and the focus of world attention.

“He understood the importance of human rights and the role of leadership from the first time he drew breath,” said Carol Rinehart, co-chairwoman of Northampton’s Human Rights Commission, which sponsored the event along with the Social Justice Committee of the Unitarian Society of Northampton.

Northampton City Council President William H. Dwight, who emceed the event, also recalled Mandela as he opened the ceremonies.

“He’s a man of our time when so few people of our time have presented themselves with such virtue and honor and courage,” Dwight said.

After Northampton Mayor David J. Narkewicz read a proclamation declaring Dec. 10, 2013, Human Rights Day in Northampton, a lineup of people — including former mayor Clare Higgins — each read one of the declaration’s 30 articles. They committed the United Nations to uphold the dignity and worth of all people, the equal rights of men and women, and justice and respect for international law.

At the close of his talk, Miller provided a road map for the audience to consider as it tackles the anti-racism work that remains to be done. Those actions involve training one’s “eyes and ears” to see, hear and recognize racism, particularly white people who, as Miller put it, are not “ensnared” in the institution of racism.

He called on the audience to find people who share a common vision to stamp out racism and to develop the kind of compassion that a leader like Mandela showed the world, and finally, to remain engaged in the struggle against racism.

“We’re all victims of racism in various ways,” Miller said, adding later, “There’s a lot in our past that needs to be excavated, apologized for and repaired.”

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.


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