Published: Feb 19, 2012 02:00 AM
Modified: Feb 18, 2012 01:20 PM
In the civil rights class I'm taking this year for my history credit, we've learned a lot about discrimination in our nation's history, everything from the segregation of public transportation to the story of Emmett Till.
I've been impressed by how much our country has changed since the 1960s and before. Among other things, no one can be denied service in a restaurant or hotel on the basis of skin color, and nobody has to take a literacy test when going to the polls.
At times, however, there are reminders that the struggle to end all forms of discrimination continues. I was reminded of this recently when my mom heard a story from our friend, Helen Mikul.
Helen lived in Mexico when she was growing up. She wasn't Catholic, but she always liked the picture of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, the patron saint of pregnant women and poor people in Mexico.
Her sister sends her a calendar that includes the picture, which Helen, a certified nurse midwife who used to work at the Chapel Hill Birthing Center and who now works for Piedmont Health Services in Siler City, always cuts out and tapes to the back window of her 2003 Toyota Tacoma.
It had never been a problem until she moved to Chatham County two years ago. But within a six-month period, she was pulled over five times by Chatham County law enforcement officers. Presumably, they were not expecting to find a small blond lady driving a pickup truck with a picture of the Mexican patron saint, seldom displayed outside of the Latino community, on the back.
Helen never got a ticket in all of those stops, but she also never got a good explanation for why she'd been stopped.
"They always had a lame excuse," she said.
One time, clearly surprised at whom they found at the wheel, they said they thought maybe she wasn't wearing a seatbelt, but didn't even notice that her inspection sticker had expired.
Last April, the fifth time she was pulled over, she says, "The two sheriffs who stopped me, I mean, they came in at me like this." Helen put her hands in a V shape to show how the two patrol cars cut her off on either side.
She said to them: "You fellows need to get together and tell all of your friends, don't stop the little old lady in the green truck because she's gonna call a lawyer. I'm not sure what you all are up to but it doesn't seem right."
Helen hasn't been stopped since then. Of course, she is able to speak up, while many Hispanic people who are pulled over have nobody to go to, and live in fear of deportation.
In my civil rights class, we discuss how ending discrimination continues to be a work in progress.
Just two years ago, the Winston-Salem Police Department set up stationary drivers license checkpoints, 85 percent of which are located in predominantly minority neighborhoods. At a town meeting to raise awareness about the issue, one Hispanic lady reported watching white drivers waved through the checkpoints while she was stopped.
As Martin Luther King said in his letter from the Birmingham jail, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Even though this issue may not affect some of us directly now, who knows who will be next.