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Guest Column

October 9, 2010

Now is the time for Sidney to show strength

I have been following the unfortunate controversy in my hometown of Sidney regarding the Islamic cemetery with some concern. The town does not benefit from its new-found fame, and it tends to paint an incomplete picture of Sidney residents. I graduated from Sidney High School in 1976 and lived on Wheat Hill Road in Sidney Center in the 1980s. I worked on the farms there; started the Sidney Center (Maywood) Historical Society and served as its president; and helped create the museum in the O&W railroad depot. I'd like to share a few lessons that I have learned from Sidney's history.

The Sidney Central School district is outstanding. I consider myself lucky to have had dedicated and talented teachers. Our classes were taught to think outside the box of our small, isolated community, and to connect with it. In high school, I introduced my teachers and classmates to my friend, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. At the time, Rubin was incarcerated in a New Jersey prison, yet our class communicated with him through letters and cassette tapes.

We learned from the New York Times (Sept. 27, 1974) that a police investigator had called Rubin and co-defendant John Artis "n....rs, Muslims, animals, and murderers." This tendency to dehumanize people distorts rational thought. Indeed, in 1983, a federal district court judge ruled that the police and prosecutors had appealed to "racism rather than reason," and committed "grave constitutional violations."

In 2000, when the now-Dr. Rubin Carter spoke at Colgate and the State University of New York at Binghamton, I was proud to attend with my family and groups of Sidney High School students. Rubin introduced me to the crowds and spoke fondly of the Sidney Class of '76, which "sent a ray of sunlight into my dark and dreary cell." As a result, a SUNY professor contacted me, to see if I could ask Rubin to contribute to her book, which spoke to the violence in our culture. I was thinking about it when I called Rubin today.

"Hate can only produce hate," he said. "That's why all these wars are going on, all this insanity. There's too much anger in the United States. People are too afraid, too numbed out. We need to wipe out all this hatred, fear, distrust and violence. We need to understand, forgive and love."

Rubin's message at Colgate and SUNY Binghamtom reached the students in a personal way. It came not long after two Sidney High School seniors had been attacked in a racially motivated hate crime at the General Clinton Canoe Regatta. One of the victims was my nephew. Later, two Asian American SUNY students were assaulted in related hate crimes on the Binghamton campus.

We are experiencing serious difficulties as a nation today. Without question, there are dangerous, hateful and violent people in the world who seek to do great harm to our country. Yet I do not think that our society should react by forgetting what it is that makes the United States such a great country. What Rubin Carter said applies to the situation in Sidney. We must understand that when public figures voice prejudice against any minority group, they risk giving license to those violent people in our society's margins. People of good will must speak out.

The next Sidney Town Board meeting is scheduled for Thursday, October 14, at 7 p.m., in the Sidney Civic Center. The building happens to be one of the community's old schools. I urge all Sidney and area citizens who are interested in this conflict to attend.

Maybe we can put our minds together and come up with a solution that benefits everyone.

Considering the national media attention that this is getting, I think that the people of Sidney can set an example of the strength of community.

McElligott is a retired social worker who lives in Mount Upton. He worked in Delaware County in the 1980s and then for Chenango County Mental Health until his retirement in 2003.

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