By Susan D. Brandenburg
March 9, 2006
Six decades ago, they fought racial hatred on two different continents and lived to tell the story. Now, Holocaust Survivor Henri Landwirth, 79, and Klan-Buster Stetson Kennedy, 89, are teaming up in Jacksonville, Florida to champion civil rights and reduce racial unrest in high schools!
On March 9, 2006, 15-year old Bryce Lewis of Callahan shot himself in the head with a 9 mm gun.
A student at West Nassau High School, where the student body of 1,000 is about 95% white, Lewis was black. His sudden death shocked the small community and fueled the spark of racial unrest already smoldering at the high school.
“We don’t think Bryce’s suicide had anything to do with his treatment at school,” said West Nassau’s Principal, Ron Booker. “From what we understand, he had some serious family issues. We had no idea he was such a troubled young man.”
Booker stated, however, that a certain amount of racial discord did exist at the school. He alluded to T-shirts made by Dixie Outfitters and worn by some of his students. “They put Confederate Flags on everything,” he said, “and one t-shirt has a picture of an elderly black woman picking cotton and the message, ‘Your grandmother picked the cotton that made this shirt.’” Although angered by the fact that the company is “making a ton of money on negative messages,” Booker feels it’s a violation of free speech to ban the wearing of such shirts. “We’ve got a great student group here,” he adds, “that are making those shirts ‘uncool.’”
“It took a huge, racially motivated fight here at school to wake us up to the fact that we can’t just sit back and let things like this happen,” said West Nassau Junior, Chris Donley, founder of a student group called C.A.R.E. (Communities Against Racist Environments). Donley, recently recognized by Governor Jeb Bush as one of Florida’s outstanding African-American students and slated for Senior Class Presidency in 2007, was joined in recruiting membership for C.A.R.E. by Joseph Jones, the 2006 Senior Class President. “These two young leaders – one black and one white - are determined to get past racial issues and encourage their classmates to value each other as human beings,” said Booker.
Despite the efforts of C.A.R.E., racial tension at the school escalated as a result of Bryce Lewis’s suicide.
“It seemed like students were trying to find someone to blame for Bryce’s death,” said Bettina Hodges, an art teacher who had Lewis in one of her classes last year. “Fights broke out between small groups. It wasn’t everybody, but it was divisive. I finally decided something dramatic had to happen to make these children stop hating each other.”
Hodges took action after hearing about a white student’s remark, “What’s everybody so upset for … just because a nigger died?”
“I went home heartsick,” she recalls. Hodges’ husband, Scott [former assistant principal at Fernandina Beach High School] had heard Henri Landwirth, a Holocaust survivor and internationally known philanthropist, speak on racial violence at Fernandina Beach High School. He advised Bettina to call Landwirth.
Not only did Holocaust survivor Henri Landwirth accept Hodges’ invitation, but he recruited his friend and fellow human rights activist, Stetson Kennedy.
“While I was a young boy being tortured by German Nazis, Stetson was right here fighting the American Nazis [the Ku Klux Klan],” said Landwirth. “I had no choice about my early life, but my friend, the Klan-Buster, did. Stetson is my hero.”
At ages 79 and 89, respectively, Landwirth and Kennedy proved to be a powerful duo.
West Nassau High School’s student body listened intently on April 17th as Landwirth described five years of terror in a series of Nazi concentration camps from age 13 to 18, “They wanted to kill me just because I was born a Jew.” Landwirth talked of the brutal murders of his parents. “My father was shot in the head and joined hundreds of other Jews in a mass grave. My mother was put on a boat with 2,000 other women and the boat was exploded at sea. I miss my parents every day of my life,” he said, instructing students to “Go home tonight and tell your parents you love them.” He talked of the miraculous survival of his twin sister, Margot, and how they found each other at war’s end.
He talked of his deep hatred for the Germans. “Hatred makes you sick,” Landwirth said. “I was so full of hate, I could think of nothing else. All it did was land me in jail. It wasn’t until I forgave the Germans that I got my life back.”
Landwirth talked of his rise from poverty to riches in America; about being drafted into the U.S. Army, going to school on the G.I. Bill, rising to wealthy hotel owner and eventually going into a life dedicated to charity. “Only in this great country could an uneducated immigrant go from the very worst to the very best,” he told students.
Then they listened as Stetson Kennedy talked of growing up in Jacksonville during the 1920’s and 30’s, his family deeply entrenched in Southern apartheid. Kennedy talked of recognizing his uncle’s shoes under a Klan robe during a hometown parade, and of his days at Robert E. Lee High School when classmates found it amusing to drive by and knock black grocery delivery boys off of their bikes, “leaving eggs, milk and blood splattered on the sidewalk.”
Kennedy talked of his civil rights activism at the University of Florida and a day at his family’s dinner table when his sister commented, “I do believe you’d rather be with them than with us,” to which he replied, “I do believe you’re right,” leaving the table and losing all contact with his family for over 50 years.
He described his infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan in Atlanta during the 1940’s, being forced by law enforcement’s complicity with the Klan to take criminal evidence to the ‘Court of Public Opinion’ through radio personalities Drew Pearson and Walter Winchell, and on the weekly radio show, Superman, and the dramatic drop in Klan membership that resulted.
“In my nearly 90 years on earth,” he said, “I’ve traveled to 30 countries and four continents in search of answers and I’ve concluded that if we’re ever going to get anywhere as human beings, we have to get there together. It’s up to each of you which way you choose to go.”
As the two old crusaders left the school, Landwirth looked at Kennedy. “Do you think we made a difference today?” he asked. “Don’t know,” replied Kennedy with a shrug. “Hope so.”
The following day, West Nassau High School English teacher, Beth Reynolds, gave her students a pop quiz. “I’ve never done anything like that following an assembly,” said Reynolds, “but there’s never been an assembly like that one! What those two men said was so important, I wanted to reinforce it any way I could.”
Reynolds’ quiz listed specific questions geared to reveal whether students had truly listened. Her last question: “If you could sum it up, what was the message the speakers were trying to convey to us?” resulted in student responses such as:
“The message would be not to take life for granted, nor your family. Stand up for what you believe in. Also, never let go of faith and don’t take advantage of your loved ones. Forgive all, and stay strong. Their message was to keep your head up and never give up.”
“Do your best. Education is very important. Racism shouldn’t be a issue. Everybody is the same.”
“Violence isn’t the answer, like the KKK. If you are going to have anger at someone, go into the army and fight for your country. Love your parents while you can and before it’s too late. Don’t discriminate on anyone.”
“Do something with your life.”
“It’s unprecedented!” wrote Reynolds in a letter to Landwirth enclosing the student responses. “Nearly every student made 80% or above on the quiz! That’s never happened before on any pop quiz in all my 31 years of teaching.”
“They got it, Stetson!” shouted Landwirth in a phone call to Kennedy. “They really got it!”
Inspired by student responses, Landwirth cancelled his planned vacation and sought speaking engagements at several local high schools, with the caveat that he and Kennedy speak to the entire student body rather than select classes.
With finals underway and graduation looming, little time was left for schools to comply with Landwirth’s ambitious plan, but Principals Braddock and Sisler at Hilliard Middle/Senior High School and First Coast High School, respectively, arranged to make it happen.
Landwirth arrived quietly and alone at 8:15 a.m. on May 9th at Hilliard High. Due to a late night coughing bout, Kennedy had cancelled at the last minute. For nearly an hour, students straggled unenthusiastically into the auditorium, a far cry from the red carpet treatment given the two elderly activists at West Nassau High.
Middle school teacher, Carol Higginbotham, was a one-woman cheering section for Landwirth, having heard him speak previously, however, few other staff members made the effort to walk to the side of the auditorium where he stood waiting to speak.
“I guess this is what happens when you invite yourself,” joked Landwirth.
As he continued to wait, Landwirth requested guidance from the few teachers and administrators who approached him. “What are the problems here at Hilliard?” he asked. “What do these students need to hear from me?” Stilted, hesitant half-answers were his reward. “There’s a lot of poverty here,” ventured one. “Self-respect is an issue. There’s been some fighting,” admitted another. “I’d rather you ask someone higher up in the administration,” requested another, with a guarded glance around. “Race doesn’t seem to be a big thing here. Most of our students are white,” said one teacher smugly.
“Twice as many murders in Jacksonville as we had last year at this time and many of the victims were young and promising like you!” declared Landwirth loudly as he stepped up to the microphone to speak to approximately 500 students. “Change starts with every one of you in this room!”
Holocaust … loss … hunger … pain … forgiveness … they listened. “If you cannot forgive, you cannot love fully,” he told them, “and life without love is nothing.”
He talked of his passion for his 20-year old foundation, Give Kids the World, a 70-acre village in Orlando where 76,000 terminally ill children and their families have vacationed.
“Just like those children, I was earmarked to die. I had no control over my life,” he told the now-silent group. “I see myself in their faces. I’m part of a dying generation of Holocaust survivors, but you – you have control over your lives.”
After the question and answer period, several students converged on Landwirth as he prepared to leave. “I didn’t know any Holocaust survivors were still alive!” said Caleb Stoner, 17. “This was amazing!”
“My grandfather’s twin brother was killed in Auschwitz,” countered 16-year old Chris Bray. “His name is Henry Bekkers and he escaped on a cruiser. He lives in Ft. Lauderdale.”
“Forgiveness,” was all one young man could mutter as he looked at Landwirth, eyes welling with tears. “I’m going to forgive my mom.”
“I want Henri back next year to talk to all my middle-schoolers,” declared Hilliard Principal Dale Braddock. “He has a “rags to riches” story we all need to hear.” Although Braddock insisted Hilliard has not had many racial problems, he said that a number of his students come from rural backgrounds and need to know they can dream big dreams.
Thursday, May 11th, Landwirth and Kennedy arrived promptly at 7:45 a.m. for their date with students at First Coast High School. One of Jacksonville’s largest high schools, with a student body of 2200, First Coast is also one of its most diverse. 42 percent of the students are black, 54 percent white, and the rest Hispanic, Asian and other races.
walked briskly into the large courtyard where, just 8 months ago [on October 26, 2005], a noose was hung on a tree by a group of white students who then urged two black students to put their heads in. Although the white students insisted it was a joke, police authorities and the school took it seriously. Parents, fearful of a race riot, picked their children up early that day. Police helicopters hovered overhead and law enforcement was on hand to keep the peace on the ground.
Four white students were suspended as a result of the incident, and First Coast Principal, Dr. Crystal Sisler, immediately began working closely with Josephine Jackson, J.D., of Duval County Public Schools Office of Equal Opportunity/Equal Access, to uncover and address racial issues.
“What we discovered, in going classroom to classroom and talking with students, was disturbing,” said Sisler, citing the example of one young black student who had silently endured racial harassment on the bus for months. “She never reported it to us or to her parents,” said Sisler, “and worse than that was the realization that there were 50 students on that bus who stood by and allowed it to happen.”
Sisler and Jackson have since initiated several programs at the school to pro-actively deal with racism, including using the book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, as a study/discussion opportunity.
According to Jackson, there are several programs available to schools, including:
“First-hand accounts of racism and the violence it engenders have also proven to be a powerful tool for change,” said Sisler on May 11. “So, we feel especially privileged to end this year with such a powerful pair of qualified speakers.”
As video cameras rolled, the Landwirth/Kennedy show was on a roll as well.
When asked “How did you get over the anger?” Landwirth’s response, “God meant for me to get over this anger so that I could be here with you today,” elicited loud applause.
Laughter erupted as Kennedy responded to a question about his closest call with the Klan. “There was a day,” Kennedy recalled, “when the Grand Wizard locked the doors and announced, ‘We’ve got the rat now. The bald-headed bastard is sitting right here among us. I looked around and there were seven of us bald-headed bastards in the room, so I sat tight.”
Kennedy’s face turned grim as he responded to the next question: “Is the Klan still around?” “They’ve traded in their robes for camouflage and are gathering weapons in many areas of this country. They want a global Holocaust against Jews and they plan to strip what they call the “mud people” (non-whites) of their American citizenship.” Kennedy went on to say that he had seen so-called citizen militia units wearing camouflage and target shooting just down from his Fruit Cove home on State Road 13.
“We also need to be wary” he warned, “of the plainclothes Klansmen that exist in the halls of government and on courthouse benches.”
Among the students that surrounded Landwirth and Kennedy following their presentation on May 11th were a diverse group of freshmen, Sajan Jura, Mitchell Atwell and Larry Starratt, and sophomores, Maria Ramirez and Tierra Orr. “We’ve been studying the Holocaust, but it is awesome to meet someone who was actually there,” said Ramirez. “I can’t believe these men came to our school!”
Josephine Jackson, on hand for the presentation at First Coast, has high hopes that Landwirth and Kennedy will continue their crusade in 2007. “They are history that is still alive, and they’re giving students an incredible gift of empowerment. Our young people face challenges on a daily basis because of personal and physical characteristics over which they have no control. We need to empower our youth with a sense of purpose, as well as help them attain good grades.”
Jackson talked of the subtle and sometimes blatant racism she’s encountered. “Annually, we participate in the national “Mix It Up at Lunchtime” day, where students are encouraged to talk to someone they don’t normally talk to at school,” she said. “Last November, I got an irate call from a man who demanded to know why we were forcing kids to be with ‘those people.’ When I called him back, it turned out he was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of White People, with offices right here in Duval County.”
Jacksonville has 165 schools, approximately 16,000 employees and over 125,000 students, Jackson said, adding that it is not uncommon for one school to have 15 different languages spoken, reflecting students’ diverse ethnicities. “No doubt there are a range of personalities among us,” she said, “some good, some exceptional, some not so good, some willing to break the rules.” In April 2005, “hit lists” were found in a student’s book bag – the student was making plans to injure people who made him angry. In 2004, students at a Northside school hung a Confederate flag out of a school bus window and some displayed swastikas on their bodies and clothing.
“At West Nassau, Mr. Booker is totally responsive to any sign of discrimination,” said Bettina Hodges. “He has made it clear that whether it’s cracker or the N-word, no racial name-calling will be tolerated. Since Mr. Landwirth and Mr. Kennedy came here, I have not heard one racial slur and there have been no incidents. It’s a hopeful sign.”
It’s the fence-riders, Hodges surmises, whose attitudes are probably most affected by Landwirth and Kennedy. “Some kids are raised with prejudice from the time they’re born and it’s deeply ingrained, but for those who haven’t yet made up their minds, their message is really powerful,” said Hodges. “Bryce Lewis was a sweet child. He was a talented artist who liked to draw cartoons and joke around, but he was never mean-spirited. His death may not have been racially motivated, but in a way it was the catalyst that made me pick up the phone and call Henri Landwirth. I’m glad I made that call.”
Henri Landwirth’s dedication to children, stemming from a childhood lost to Nazi terrorism, was acknowledged in a special way during his recent high school campaign. West Nassau High School student, Eric Battle, stood during the question and answer period. “My family went to your Give Kids The World Village last year with my four year old sister,” said Battle. “She died this year, but we’ll never forget what you did for her and for us.” And, following his talk at First Coast High School, Landwirth was approached by Taylor Scheibe, 16. “My family and I were at Give Kids The World three years ago. I’m a cancer survivor,” she told him as he enfolded her in his arms.