A Local Community’s Response to Hate - Woven With Words

 

Jennifer Schlegel, Kutztown University, with Terry Stahl

 

According to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, Berks County consistently ranks in the top five counties in the state for the number of bias and tension incidents reported.  Organized hate groups active in Berks County in the last two decades include the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, National Socialist Movement, and National Alliance.  Some of the communities targeted through recruitment and leafleting are Reading, Fleetwood, Boyertown, Exeter Township, and Lower Alsace Township.

           

In the 1990s, the Boyertown area was hit hard by the force of racism, but the community responded with equal force.  After a truckload of white youths and adults harassed an African American high school student, a coalition of concerned citizens was formed that ultimately became the Boyertown Area Unity Coalition (BAUC).  Established in 1994, BAUC has been striving to fulfill its mission “to create and nurture a caring community climate in which respect for all people, young and old, is cultivated and bigotry is rejected.”  When faced with hooded and robed members of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan passing out hate literature monthly on the main thoroughfare of Boyertown, BAUC implemented Project Lemonade, encouraging supporters to make a pledge to a human rights group for every minute an organized hate group appeared publicly.  More than $11,000 has been raised and contributed to groups such as the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, and BAUC.  Donations to BAUC were then given to the J.K. Boyer Community Library for the purchase of books addressing multiculturalism.  BAUC was instrumental in the co-organization of the first Martin Luther King, Jr., Service with the Boyertown Ministerial Association in 1999, and helped establish a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Read-A-Thon at the J.K. Boyer Community Library, using books recommended by the Coretta Scott King Foundation.

           

In 2002, along with the Reading-Berks Human Relations Council, BAUC co-organized a community meeting entitled “Promoting Tolerance and Respect for Different Views in Berks County,” featuring human rights workers from Kootenai County, Idaho, who successfully sued the Aryan Nations, resulting in its financial demise.  The following weekend in Boyertown, three Klanspeople appeared on the same thoroughfare as in the 1990s.

           

In the fall of 2004, a white male attempted to burn a cross on the lawn of an African American family in Gilbertsville.  BAUC, in coordination with the victims, organized a Unity Walk to show support for the family and to demonstrate community support.  Approximately two hundred people participated.  The alleged perpetrator of the attempted cross-burning died in the spring of 2005 while in jail awaiting trial.

           

Racial slurs and threats were part of the graffiti found in a boys’ bathroom at Boyertown Junior High West in the winter of 2005.  The Boyertown Area School District formed a Diversity Steering Committee in order to address the issues of bias and tension in the school district.  Several BAUC members serve on the committee.

           

In the fall of 2005, nearly one thousand people participated in the 2nd Annual Boyertown Area Unity Walk, co-organized by BAUC, the United Way of Boyertown Area, and the Boyertown Area School District.

           

Hate in the Boyertown area remains a problem in the twenty-first century. BAUC will continue to look for solutions through creative cooperation with other groups and agencies to ensure that respect and tolerance reign over bigotry and prejudice.

 

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@ 2018 Reading Branch #2289 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People