Garapan Elementary School 4th grade student Cindy Gong learned in history class a few weeks ago that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a day to commemorate a man “who accepted all people and united us.”
For Alabama 10th Judicial Circuit Judge Helen Shores Lee, her experience was more than another history lesson. At a young age Lee grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, during a time of great racial turbulence.
Lee told a standing-room-only audience at the American Memorial Park Monday night of her struggles growing up as a young African-American.
“The journey to equality is not yet complete. We have made significant gains in the struggle for equality…but our task is unfinished,” Lee said. “Racism is still alive and growing.”
Lee grew up in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s in the South and that molded and shaped her thoughts as a young girl on what it meant to be an American. For her, it meant that people had to struggle.
Growing up in Dynamite Hill, where many bombings of African-American homes occurred, she was sitting on the front porch of her house one night when a car driven by young, white men parked in front of the house and jumped out of their car. “They would act as if they were going to rush us on our porch, only to go back and drive away. As they shouted obscenities at me, I would shout back at them,” Lee said.
The group continued to park in front of her house and jump out and threaten her family. “They would not go away,” she said.
After several more such encounters, Lee finally decided that enough was enough. She grabbed her father’s gun inside her house and waited for them to return—and they did.
“As they came and I stood up and fired, my father hit my arm, deflecting the shot in the air,” Lee said.
This defining moment was something Lee said she did out of anger at the age of 13.
Lee’s father, Arthur Shores, represented Martin Luther King Jr. in several court proceedings. He was then the only practicing African-American lawyer in Alabama and was part of the principal litigation involving equal rights in Alabama and the southeast. In 1938, he required the Board of Registrars, through the federal court, to register seven blacks to vote.
“One way of making change is finding common ground,” Lee said. “Can we find common ground today? Our politicians certainly can’t.”
“We can no longer, none of us, afford to sit idly by and wait for change. We need to keep the faith and continue to fight until it’s truly a nation for the people, by the people, for all people.”
Lee urged the audience to come together and make sure that “we all live a happy life,” adding that civic engagement is an integral factor to achieving that happiness.
The Alabama circuit judge received a standing ovation after her presentation.
Dozens of AmeriCorps students attended the event. One member, Susie Tighe, said that “hearing [Lee’s] story about her struggles was inspiring.”
Students from Saipan Southern High School’s Honors Government class also participated in the discussion. “I thought it was very inspirational. It put my mind at a different perspective. Racism is an issue bigger than most people think,” SSHS student Katrina Cruz told Saipan Tribune.
She said racism is also evident at her school. “Racism is definitely something that happens at school between students.”
Cruz shared that she will now be an advocate for discriminated students at her school because of Lee’s presentation.
The event was hosted by the NMI Humanities Council in commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This is the sixth year that the NMI Humanities Council brought to the CNMI a distinguished scholar to talk about issues related to the commemoration of MLK Day.