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Civil rights in Vt

01/11/07 12:00AM By Jay Craven
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(HOST) Martin Luther King's birthday is this coming Monday, and it reminds commentator Jay Craven of a moment from Vermont history that inspired one of his films.

(CRAVEN) Martin Luther King's legacy embodies the creative use of non-violence, an embrace of shared responsibility, the practice of democracy, and a call for leadership in small places. As we approach King's birthday, I'm reminded of Vermonters who have risen to these challenges.

Ten years ago, I made a film, "A Stranger in the Kingdom," that tells a story inspired by real-life racial incidents known as The Irasburg Affair. My research into the history of those July 1968 events showed me how twin currents of progress and reaction run throughout Vermont's history.

The Irasburg incidents began with a drive-by shooting at the home of David Lee Johnson, a newly arrived black minister - and the subsequent police investigation that focused more on the background of the minister than the shooters.
,br>Democrat Phil Hoff was the state's Governor at the time and he acted instinctively to support the Johnsons. Republican Attorney General James Oakes and his wife traveled to Irasburg to help the family with household chores and bear witness, hoping to discourage further violence. A handful of Vermonters, among them poet Adrienne Rich, also went to Irasburg, to stand vigil on the black family's porch.

The Irasburg incidents were probably inevitable. An unsettled racial climate had erupted that spring when Governor Hoff joined with New York Mayor John Lindsay to launch the New York-Vermont Youth Project that hosted several hundred black teenagers here and worked to build bridges of understanding between them and their Vermont peers.

Racially-charged letters poured into newspapers and Governor Hoff's office, denouncing the Youth Project. Vermonters' attitudes, measured in polls, showed a sudden decline in support for civil rights.

Some black teens were harassed at Crystal Lake, just days before the shooting. After Hoff's defense of the Johnsons, an angry Northeast Kingdom legislator warned the Governor not to travel to the Kingdom without beefed-up police protection.

Analysts agree that racial backlash hastened the decline in the political careers of both Hoff and Oakes. But both of these men, along with ordinary Vermonters who traveled to Irasburg, embodied the mandates of the King legacy - just three months after his death. They faced up to shared civic responsibility, showed courage when it was dangerous and unpopular, and practiced non-violent direct action as an essential democratic tool and a deterrent to violence.

Vermont was the first state to abolish slavery and legalize civil unions but we still face challenges. The U.S Civil Rights Commission has found that harassment is still all too common in Vermont schools in matters of race and gender identity.

Biographer Taylor Branch says that at the end of his life, Martin Luther King worried that his commitment to creative non-violence would not endure. In a New York Times article last year, Branch urged renewal. Quote. "Gunfire took Dr. King's life, but we determine his legacy." End of quote. This holiday, I hope that inspiration remains our patriotic challenge - even here in Vermont.

Filmmaker Jay Craven teaches at Marlboro College and directs Kingdom County Productions.

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