A voice for the op­pressed fights on

The Washington Post - - STYLE - BY LAU­REN LOF­TUS

As the 50th an­niver­sary of the Vot­ing Rights Act’s sign­ing ap­proaches Thurs­day, Mar­i­one In­gram says we’re back­track­ing as a coun­try.

“They’re dis­en­fran­chis­ing the poor, the el­derly, blacks, Lati­nos, stu­dents,” she says of voter iden­ti­fi­ca­tion laws and the Supreme Court’s con­tin­ued re­fusal to hear chal­lenges to such re­stric­tions. “This is, of course, how Hitler came to power, by dis­en­fran­chis­ing vot­ers.”

Per­haps a tad hy­per­bolic, she ad­mits, but the 79-year-old District-based artist and ac­tivist is in a par­tic­u­lar po­si­tion to be sen­si­tive. A Holo­caust sur­vivor who es­caped im­pris­on­ment and sur­vived one of the worst fire­bomb­ings of World War II, one that killed more than 42,000 civil­ians in Ham­burg, In­gram im­mi­grated to the United States in 1952, a few weeks shy of her 17th birth­day.

A be­liever in the “Amer­i­can myth of the land of op­por­tu­nity,” she says she was shocked to find a coun­try deeply mired in racism. Iden­ti­fy­ing with the op­pressed, In­gram threw her­self into the civil rights move­ment to protest dis­crim­i­na­tion.

In her new­book, “The Hands of Peace,” the se­quel to “The Hands of War,” her mem­oir about grow­ing up in Nazi Ger­many, In­gram re­counts vol­un­teer­ing with the March on Wash­ing­ton, or­ga­niz­ing sit-ins and reg­is­ter­ing black vot­ers en masse in Mis­sis­sippi with the Stu­dent Non­vi­o­lent Co­or­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee. On Wed­nes­day at 6:30 p.m., she will give a read­ing at the Takoma Bus­boys and Poets.

Sit­ting in her sunny Foggy Bot­tom apart­ment dressed in a col­or­ful sweater she knit­ted her­self, her shock of white hair like a cloud around her dark, lined eyes, In­gram says she was lucky to have found the civil rights move­ment when she did. It showed her an al­ter­na­tive to the venge­ful­ness she felt to­ward the Nazi Gestapo who sent her beloved grand­mother and other rel­a­tives to death camps. As a child, she re­mem­bers, “I couldn’t go to sleep at night un­less I had vividly pic­tured all of the tor­tures that I . . . could in­flict on the peo­ple who had mur­dered my fam­ily.”

But her new com­pa­tri­ots showed her “that to­gether things can be done. Andthey can be done with­out guns, with­out bombs, with­out war,” she says. One such friend was the late Fan­nie Lou Hamer, the “sick and tired of be­ing sick and tired” vice chair of the Mis­sis­sippi Free­dom Party, whom In­gram met on a bus trip back from an At­lantic City sit-in dur­ing the­sum­merof 1964. By the time they ar­rived back in Wash­ing­ton, In­gram says Hamer had per­suaded her to go toMis­sis­sippi for the Free­dom Sum­mer pro­ject.

Leav­ing be­hind her hus­band, Daniel, and her young son, Danny, for sev­eral months, sheem­bed­ded in Jack­son County, Miss., to help reg­is­ter black vot­ers who had been fac­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion at the polls, be­ing turned away for fail­ing con­fus­ing lit­er­acy tests or be­ing un­able to re­cite large swaths of the Con­sti­tu­tion. In­gram and other vol­un­teers pro­vided trans­porta­tion to would-be vot­ers, held classes on how to vote and ran prac­tice vot­ing drives.

Decades have passed, and “we are back to where we were,” she says of vot­ing rights re­stric­tions. And it’s not just ac­cess to the polls that is be­ing taken away, she says — “We have be­come a coun­try that to­tally dis­misses part of its pop­u­la­tion,” whether it’s cli­mat­e­change de­niers re­fus­ing to ac­cept re­spon­si­bil­ity for harm­ing the en­vi­ron­ment, women los­ing ac­cess to birth con­trol or the in­abil­ity to pass back­ground checks on gun pur­chases.

After mov­ing back toWash­ing­ton after a 20-year stint in Eu­rope — where she and Daniel moved in protest after Ron­ald Rea­gan won re­elec­tion — In­gram says see­ing the ris­ing death toll of the Iraq war prompted her to start a new kind of protest. She compiled her var­i­ous writ­ings about her own trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ences into “a protest book against war.”

While the first book shows how chil­dren who, like her, sur­vive war must deal with the demons of trauma for the rest of their lives, she says “The Hands of Peace” demon­strates how to channel those demons into some­thing pos­i­tive. “If we fight on be­half of chil­dren as we did in the civil rights move­ment,” she says, “we can com­bat violence and war and dis­crim­i­na­tion by band­ing to­gether in a peace­ful way.”

In­gram says she will never stop ag­i­tat­ing. “I’m demon­strat­ing all the time,” she says about stump­ing in front of the White House most weeks, sign­ing pe­ti­tions and writ­ing let­ters to the ed­i­tor. “Our friends say, ‘I couldn’t reach you— I guess you were at a protest.’ ” No fight is too small; re­count­ing a re­cent in­ci­dent when she in­serted her­self be­tween two knife-wield­ing fish­er­men at the Wharf in South­west Wash­ing­ton, she says, “I re­al­ized only later that I could have been a pin­cush­ion be­tween these two knives.”

After all, she says, it’s “an enor­mous ad­van­tage of this coun­try” that the op­pressed never have to be silent. It’s by be­ing com­pla­cent that we be­gin to slip back into op­pres­sion. “If you don’t do or say any­thing, then you are just as guilty,” she says of fel­low cit­i­zens who turn a blind eye to in­jus­tices hap­pen­ing around them.

“It doesn’t re­ally mat­ter if you’re male, fe­male, trans­gen­der, or you’re black, white, Latino, or poor or rich,” she says. “If we don’t face the fact that we are in the same boat to­gether, we’re all go­ing to drown.”

LAU­REN LOF­TUS/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Mar­i­one In­gram, a Holo­caust sur­vivor and civil rights ac­tivist, re­flects on her lat­est book, “The Hands of Peace,” while at home in Foggy Bot­tom last month. She says the United States has back­tracked on the progress of civil rights is­sues with the rise of new vot­ing re­stric­tions.

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