Traveling home from Ku Klux Klan rallies in cars loaded with dynamite, standing in churches as they were firebombed and waiting for a sheriff to arrive at his burning house to save him from gun-toting KKK members has provided former director of the Michigan Anti-Defamation League, Richard Lobenthal, with a unique perspective on prejudice.
Throughout his 36-year career at the ADL, Lobenthal was on the front lines of the battle against hate.
Last night at the University’s chapter of Hillel, Lobenthal shared some of his compelling stories with a gathering of students and local residents. Lobenthal’s hope was to convey the relevance of these experiences to the current struggle against intolerance.
Lobenthal said there is still an undercurrent of prejudice continuing to threaten individuals and infringing on their ability to live a secure life. “As we go from the ‘50s and ‘60s to 2005, we’re still dealing with this issue,” he said.
Citing recent events around the country and at the University, including the drawing of swastikas in Mary Markley Residence Hall, Lobenthal expressed anxiety over manifestations of hate in the United States today.
“One thing I’ve become increasingly concerned about is that Americans are losing their ability to be tolerant,” he said. “It’s our inability to recognize our differences and coexist that makes me nervous,” he added.
Lobenthal also explained how such intolerance will impact the country in coming decades. In particular, Lobenthal conveyed his doubt that democracy can survive in a climate of prejudice. “The ability for us to get along together is the most fundamental concept of American democracy,” he said.
Lobenthal said he is disturbed by the fact that individuals have become increasingly incapable of speaking openly about issues of race and tolerance. Even worse, he said the result has been a gradual muting of voices that fight for equal rights.
“When you begin to have a country move to apathy about harassing people … and you don’t have a sense of indignation, … that is very dangerous,” he said. “Until we have a collective sense of outrage, then the world’s going to deteriorate.”
It was this sense that first inspired Lobenthal to become a civil rights activist over four decades ago. He wanted to be heard in firm opposition to the many prejudiced movements — including the Dixiecrats and a resurgent KKK — spreading around the country.
As a result, he joined the ADL, which Lobenthal called the oldest and largest private civil rights organization in the world, and while serving in its Virginia office, he took steps to combat hate by infiltrating the KKK and observing the group’s activities firsthand.
In 1964, Lobenthal became the Michigan director of the ADL. He served in this capacity until 1996, when he stepped down to engage in other forms of civil rights activism, including acting as interim director of the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union.
With his decades-long work as a fighter of prejudice, Lobenthal left a mark on many lives. Rabbi Jason Miller, assistant director of Michigan Hillel, worked as an intern with Lobenthal one summer and called him as a “public defender and unifier.”
Lobenthal’s story resonated with RC sophomore Monica Woll, chair of Hillel’s governing board. “It was inspiring to hear someone so dedicated and passionate about a cause living his life attempting to end racism and segregation,” she said.
Miller said this energy and determination allowed Lobenthal to create a climate of tolerance for disparaged groups. “All these minority groups owe so much to this man who has dedicated his life to fighting hate and building bridges,” he said.