It’s probably not on your calendar, but today is World Humanitarian Day. Many of the people who have inspired me most in my life are those I’d want to be sure to celebrate on this occasion – each influencing my own life’s path in different ways.
Only a month after turning 12, I moved with my mother and sister to start a new life in Atlanta, Georgia. That region of the country in the early 60’s was a strange place to grow up, and Atlanta seemed like ground zero for the Deep South. Pickrick Restaurant owner Lester Maddox, who would later become the state’s Governor, chased blacks from his restaurant with pick axe handles, which he distributed to his customers. The white police force did little to stop the bloodshed.
Were it not for the clear voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose passionate activism focused on abolishing racial segregation in America, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 may never have been passed. Upon King’s death, then Governor Maddox denied the slain civil rights leader the honor of lying in state in the Georgia state capitol. He left office only two years later with an astounding 84% favorable rating setting the stage for decades of racial division in the state. There was little doubt how being raised in Atlanta impacted my commitment to constantly examine my own racist attitudes, the importance of equal rights and a devotion to social justice.
It was King who really got my attention in Albany, Georgia where I went to summer camp, and later through the marches in Birmingham, Alabama. King’s first book “Stride Toward Freedom” is still the authoritative work on the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the seeds of civil rights from a non-violent humanitarian who pulled back the cover on poverty in rural Alabama. We can remember him at least twice every year if we include today with January 18th, his birthday and a national holiday.
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I always thought of Daniel Ransohoff, a community-planning professor at the University of Cincinnati who changed my life when he asked me what I was doing in college, as a true humanitarian, too. While most college freshman fell asleep during his required course on the history of poverty in Ohio, I was front row and center as this amazing, little known and exceedingly humble teacher shared his many photographs of inner city and rural farmland workers. I could have never imagined what life was like for those who lived only a stones throw away from my college dorm. Danny personified service to others, intellectual curiosity, passionate listening and secular teachings that sparked me to make a difference in the world. I remember him today with deep affection.
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After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa was asked by a reporter what single thing each of us might do to bring peace to the world. “Go home and love your family,” she declared. Stories of her unconditional love and caring for those in need are legendary, reflecting what too few people I’ve met actually do to carry out the true moral teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Mother Teresa was always too busy to worry about who’d win the next election or quarrel over interpretations of the Gospel. She walked her talk and inspires me to keep a low profile and just “do the work.”
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Nelson Mandela introduced me to the man who tortured him in prison. I had the rare privilege of meeting Mandela in 1995 when Long Walk to Freedom was released in Johannesburg. The unequaled Master of Forgiveness, Madiba also reminds all of us that the struggles begin inside us and when we overcome them, we’ll be even more empowered to change the world. He was an unstoppable champion of human rights who inspired millions to take to the streets to demand social justice. I am one of his greatest admirers and was blessed to be in his presence.
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Finally, I would also count Jane Goodall and Sylvia Rivera as great humanitarians to be remembered today. My guess is that most people will recognize only the first name for her groundbreaking compassionate work with primates, our closest living relatives.
Dr. Goodall champions the spirit of compassion for all sentient beings and reminds us all that animals can teach us about love and life if we’d just slow down and listen with respect. She also works tirelessly to end world hunger.
And finally, the least known name on my list is Sylvia Rivera whose activism for the homeless and her empathetic assessment of gender perspectives following the outbreak of HIV infections in the early 1980’s brought a much needed focus to the poor and working class in urban environments who have since become even more marginalized worldwide.
Reflecting with gratitude, who inspired you to make a difference and even more importantly, are you living a life worth remembering?