On the Fourth, don't forget Stan Askin

July 01, 1994|By Milton Bates

Discrimination against the Negro people means discrimination against Jews, Catholics and all minorities. Segregation is a policy used to divide people and results in inferior living conditions and recreational facilities for all.

/ -- Stanley Askin, July 1948

I HAD hoped that as spring came, the spewing of venality, brutality and hate which had marked the year's early months, thrust at us as "news" by media at times almost manic, would lessen a bit.

Alas, it didn't happen. The stories of skaters and hired thugs, mutilators and parent killers, too-clever lawyers and manipulated juries gave way to those of far-off canings, domestic abusers (perhaps murderers) and yet more frightful words of bigots.

True, much of it is short-lived nonsense, "horror-of-the-month stuff," but one of its aspects causes concern: the upsurge of virulent anti-Semitism from a few claiming leadership posts in the continuing struggle of black Americans to achieve full citizenship. Jews, given their long, often tortured history as scapegoats for real and imagined ills of varied societies, need no more enemies. But for me, the stronger feeling is one of sadness, coupled with recollections of earlier days.

I reach back in an attempt to correlate such bile with the ethics and actions of a lifelong friend, buried last December with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

Stanley Askin's death seemed to presage this time of disquiet. Twice-wounded leader of a Ranger battalion in the D-Day landing at Normandy, he led another kind of battle in the summer of 1948. Having nearly given his life in a war to destroy Hitler's master race theories, Askin returned with sure knowledge that the injustice of pervasive segregation in our society must be opposed. And so, on a July Sunday, an integrated group sought to play tennis on public courts in Druid Hill Park.

This summer, two young black women, products of Houston' public parks, star at Wimbledon. But in 1948 Askin and seven others were arrested.

A veteran but no hero, I shared Stan's views. Discrimination was demeaning to some, divisive to all. It mocked our war aims, soiled our victory. And so I walked many a picket line in front of the segregated Ford's and Maryland theaters, to the dismay of some and wonderment of others. Before the war, Stanley and I weren't politically conscious; we focused more on the joys of baseball than the pain of blacks. But the anti-fascist nature of the war educated us, and a modest sense of fairness did the rest.

Segregation, we reasoned, was indefensible. Many of those who agreed with us were Jewish. Early on we had learned that if you scratch a racist, you often uncover an anti-Semite. Perhaps we were guilty of premature decency; this was, after all, a decade and a half before Dr. King articulated his dream. In any event, there was -- contrary to the appalling claims of some today -- nothing self-serving in our actions.

Stanley Askin, hounded by McCarthyites, managed to live a fairly long (though damaged) life, but others, during those momentous days of black-Jewish unity, died young, allies in life and martyrs in death. In the Freedom Summer of 1964, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, one young black, two young Jews, were murdered, their bodies found in a Mississippi swamp.

These recollections are not a prod to mainstream African-American leaders to condemn those who now preach separation rather than integration. I have no standing to ask that. Those outside that tent can only watch and react. But the true task, as Dr. Benjamin Chavis has reminded, is to change the ghetto wastelands by elimination of "economic inequality between the races." Has the preaching of raw prejudice ever advanced us toward that goal?

Racism and religious intolerance, ugly weeds in the American garden, are as hardy as they are hateful. Nearly a half-century ago, Stanley Askin, warrior and early dreamer, understood and tried, in his way, to uproot them. He did not live quite long enough to join his valorous comrades at the Normandy reunion, those who fought the forces of hate. Perhaps none of us will survive to see the remnants fully erased. But as the nation celebrates its birthday and its freedom, it is right to ask that Askin's sacrifices, and those of countless others, be neither forgotten nor traduced.

Milton Bates writes from Baltimore.

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