A voice for the oppressed fights on
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.”
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.