U.S. Ambassador John Shattuck

U.S. Ambassador John Shattuck
Stories Exchange Project 2000: Workshop IEastWest InstitutePrague6 December 1999
This is a very exciting project and an exciting moment for me personally. Some of you know me as Ambassador, some of you – fewer, I think – know me as someone who spent most of his career in the United States in the field of human rights, and is still committed to this field. So the launching of this new phase of the Stories Exchange Project is a personal excitement for me, and I want to lend my strongest support to the prospects that it holds for sharing stories and producing activism.
I would like to tell you about the struggle for equality and freedom that is still going on in the United States. This is a struggle which, as you know, has very deep and very painful roots. The most painful of all of course is the horror of slavery: a very substantial part of our American population traces its roots back to slavery.
I thought the best way I could pay tribute to the Stories Exchange Project would be to tell you some stories: that’s what this is all about. First let me tell you three stories, and then a fourth to end with, after I’ve made a few other remarks. I want to tell you a story that I’ve heard, a story that is in some sense my own or at least one that I share, and a third story that I have told previously here in Prague.
Probably there is no one who better exemplifies our own painful struggle for freedom and equality than George Haley. George Haley is now, like me, a United States Ambassador: to the Republic of Gambia, in Africa. He is the brother of the writer one of the great books in our recent history which is about slavery, about tracing the roots back to the slavery period.
In the Second World War George Haley was drafted into the United States Air Force. He had to report for training in Phoenix, Arizona, and when he went to report with other black American soldiers he went to a restaurant in Phoenix with his friends, and they were all turned away. They were told they could not be served because they were black. In 1942 even if you were serving your country in the military you couldn’t be served at a lunch counter in Phoenix, Arizona.
What makes this story particularly shocking is that at the same time that George Haley and his friends were being turned away, there was a group of white foreigners in the same lunch counter under military guard, and George found out that these foreigners were German prisoners of war: people with whose countrymen he was preparing to fight, and they were being served at the lunch counter to which he was being denied access.
You can imagine his feelings. And you can imagine what an impact that and many other acts of discrimination over the course of his life made on him. But he struggled along with other black Americans, and a year ago he raised his right hand in the White House and President Clinton swore him in as Ambassador to Gambia, probably the country from which his ancestors came.
The second story is one in which I have a more direct involvement. Turn the clock forward twenty years and come to the Sixties, actually 1962, and I’m traveling across the country with a number of friends, white and black. We are part of a group of singers, and we’ve been performing in concerts around that part of the United States. In Oklahoma we get out of our bus and go into a restaurant, and we too are told: “we can take you and you and you,but YOU can’t come in,” the waitress says, pointing to one of my best friends, Drew S. Days III, who was a student at Yale Law School with me, along with several other African-Americans. As a group we all decided that none of us would go in. We boycotted the restaurant.
Under President Clinton my friend Drew S. Days III has been serving as the highest law enforcement officer in the United States, as the Solicitor General of the United States, arguing all the cases before the United States Supreme Court. He too has moved to a position of prominence and power as a result of some major developments that have given him the opportunity – just as George Haley got his – to serve where he belonged.
My third story involves a white woman living in a very poor community in the Central Eastern part of the United States: in Kentucky. Her name is Linda Stout. She lives in a community which is very mixed, very poor, with lots of unemployment. Many African-Americans, many poor white people were living in trailer camps and very poor housing. Their community was consistently denied any kind of resources from the local state authorities. Linda Stout got together with her neighbors and organized something called the Piedmont Peace Project.
The Piedmont Peace Project had many dimensions. First of all, it was to express solidarity across white and black lines in that part of Kentucky. Second, it began a political organization that pressed for change in the area. It focused on a Congressman who was particularly discriminatory, in many people’s views a racist. As a result of bringing together some twenty thousand people and registering all of them to vote, Linda Stout and her organization were able to defeat this Congressman at the polls and fundamentally changed the way in which her community was operating.
These are three stories I tell you from my own experience which talk about the struggle for freedom and equality that is still going on in the United States.
I think the issues of equal opportunity and human rights are absolutely crucial to every society. There is a role for government to play and a role for society to play. Government obviously has a major role in providing laws that do not discriminate, in providing education that is equal – clearly there is a very long way to go in the Czech Republic on this subject – , and in providing law enforcement that will arrest people and charge them with crimes when they are responsible for racist acts.
This occurred recently in Ceske Budovice. While I’m not sure how this case is going to proceed, I am pleased to see that a large number of people were charged for that crime which took place last week.
Obviously government also has a role to play in eliminating the symbols of discrimination. The Czech government’s response to the issue of the Maticni wall here in the Czech Republic is an important example of what government has to do.
But there is much more that government has to do.
And there is also a great deal that citizens have to do. As I understand it, that’s what the Stories Exchange Project is all about.
The kind of action that was taken in Plzen maybe six months ago. A group of students and faculty members at West Bohemia University boycotted a restaurant and a pub where Roma were being denied service – just as George Haley was denied service, just as Drew Days was denied service. I think it is a good sign that citizen action is beginning in the Czech Republic. More of that needs to be developed.
Certainly the diversity of a society and its ability to provide opportunities for everyone is one of the most important measures of whether it is truly a democracy. And I think that all societies are strengthened by becoming more diverse. That is one of the most important parts of our society: one of the most important parts of our strength in the United is that we are very diverse. We have many different cultures, many different ethnic groups, many different religions. We have a history of discrimination, but we are working on it.
I salute everything that the Stories Exchange Project is about. Most importantly I salute the leaders from the communities who are in the Project to address these issues. As I understand it, citizen participation, education and business development are the three parts of the Stories Exchange Project.
With that in mind, let me end with a very short story about all three of those, again from the United States.
I am the organizer of a small foundation in the United States which recognizes people who have stories like this, and who have taken action to make a difference in their communities. A woman named Robin Cannon is an African-American in South Central Los Angeles, one of the poorest areas of the city. She has organized an extraordinary project coming out of the depths of her community’s despair – which has been expressed frequently in riots over the course of the last twenty years.
Her project is very concrete, very specific. She worked at City Hall as a secretary, and she found out that therewas a plan to build a huge garbage disposal factory in her part of Los Angeles. The assumption was that because people were poor and they lived badly anyway, they wouldn’t complain. She used that as a way of organizing her entire community. About a hundred thousand people came together through a combination of demonstrations, analysis – they did studies – , and lobbying of City Hall and banks and big institutions that were preparing to build this incinerator. They stopped it from being built.
The community organization that they formed was then able to start its own bank, and to provide financial opportunities to some of the small businesses in the area by working with some of the big banks in Los Angeles. The entire community through this grass roots action was able not only to stop discriminatory and very dangerous acts – dangerous to their health – but also to begin to address the social problems of the community, with the help of the government and the help of other institutions in the society.
So those are the kinds of stories that I wanted to share with you. I thank you for the Stories Exchange Project.