“Fifty four years ago at the age of six, I was sitting in our living room in Ponca City, Oklahoma with my parents, when I noticed something on each of their wrists. It was a ‘KL’ in blue ink; and on the inside of my mother’s forearm was ‘A” followed by ‘27327. Being an inquisitive little fellow, I asked them why they had those letters and numbers.
My parents explained that they were both survivors of the Holocaust. For five and a half years, they had experienced the worst of hatred, bigotry, intolerance and violence.
Except for one brother each, all of their immediate family and most of their extended family were killed by the Nazis.
They survived, in large part, because of three Christians who risked their lives to save them, because they knew it was the right thing to do. These three Christians were murdered by the Nazis for saving Jews.
One year later, when I was seven, in August of 1958, my dad saw a story on TV that really bothered him. He followed that story on TV and in the newspaper for the rest of that week.
The following Saturday, a hot August day, my parents drove me to a park. We got out of the car and walked over to two water fountains. One had a sign that read ‘Whites Only.’ The other had a sign that read ‘Coloreds Only.’ They then drove me to the bus station & showed me the nice ‘Whites’ Only waiting area. Then they took me to the not-so-nice, segregated ‘Colored’ waiting area.
Then my dad said, ‘I want you to always remember what I’ve shown you here today. This is why you do not have grandparents or lots of aunts and uncles and cousins, because people looked at them as being different, inferior. Whatever you do in life, we want you to promise us you will always stand up for what is right, always treat people with respect, and be accepting and tolerant of others, no matter how different they may be from you.’
The story that inspired my dad, to take me to the park and the bus station, was that of Clara Luper and 12 brave black students age 6-16 who walked into Katz Drugstore in downtown OKC, sat down at the counter and ordered 13 Coca-Colas. They were refused service because of the color of their skin. This was the start of the Sit-In Movement.”
After Mike and Joan married, they both became intensely interested in Manya and Majir’s story. They felt that the story was so powerful and unique that it should be documented in a book.
Beginning in 1980, Mike began flying to Oklahoma from their home in Washington DC to interview the couple, and the four began traveling to sites in Poland, Germany, Austria and Israel – the places where Manya and Majir’s lives had interwoven with history in very personal, traumatic and eventually joyful ways.
The story of the resilient couple became more and more fascinating with every interview or trip, and the book began to take shape. In a few years, Until We Meet Again (co-written with Kathleen Janger) was published and became a bestseller. Middle school and high school classes now read it alongside Anne Frank and other classics.
Soon after Until We Meet Again was published, Mike was invited to speak in schools across the country. As he spoke, the seed his father had planted by the water fountains grew into a clear, vibrant message of the importance of respect for diversity between people with differences of any and all kinds. Schoolchildren sat in rapt attention, absorbed by the riveting story and inspired by this ever-sharpening message of respect for diversity.
Other community organizations and groups began inviting him to share, as well, and this message (adapted to the needs and issues of each group, but never compromised or “soft-peddled”) began impacting cultures in faith communities, government agencies, and other organizations.
In those early years, many audiences had the opportunity to hear the story’s protagonists, themselves, speak – or at least answer questions at the end of one of Mike’s talks. The shining optimism and compassionate wit of the couple made a mark on audiences – especially young audiences – that continues to influence lives today. Tears of empathy joy were shed, and standing ovations were the rule.
Over time, the demand and need for these talks became so strong and apparent that Mike and Joan decided to form a foundation, so that Mike could leave his traditional work and use the opportunity provided by the book’s success to promote respect for diversity full-time. They found donors who shared their passion and sense of mission, and who were willing to take a chance on this fledgling nonprofit.
Soon after the Foundation was founded in 2000, Joan contacted Clara Luper, who (after Mike and Joan) became their first speaker of many. Ms. Luper joined them in their mission and spoke out of her own experiences and vision.
Knowing that the powerful emotional impact of these experiences could be solidified into lasting changes in the minds and hearts of learners through active engagement (especially if it were collaborative), Joan began leading facilitating arts experiences after the talks, especially in schools.
One day, as the Foundation was being formed, and Joan was searching her mind for inspiring ideas for a logo, she had a thought: “Wouldn’t it be nice to ask students what their symbol of diversity might be!” She started asking students that very question – and before long, collaborative, artistic representations of respect for diversity began flowing in to what became RDF’s annual “Respect Diversity Symbol Contest” (now our “Arts Competition & Exhibition”).
The Respect Diversity Foundation was birthed eight years before the end of Manya’s life and twelve years before the end of Majir’s, allowing them to nurture the small nonprofit in its early days with their wisdom and support.
In the almost thirteen years that the Respect Diversity Foundation has been in operation, Mike and Joan have been joined by dozens of speakers and artists who use their gifts and talents to reach hearts and minds, while thousands of students, campers and other young learners have been impacted with this powerful message – and created hundreds of collaborative art pieces celebrating diversity that have impacted thousands of exhibit attendees.
We know Manya and Majir would be very proud to see what we have become – and how we continue to evolve.
Contact us to learn how you and/or you organization can get involved with the Respect Diversity Foundation.