David Bruce: Stories About Prejudice

Lise Meitner, a pioneer of nuclear fission who was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1878, had to overcome prejudice to get an education and to work in the field of physics. When she was 14 years old, she had to stop attending school because girls were not allowed to attend gymnasiums, whose purpose was to prepare boys to study at universities. Fortunately, when she was 19, the law was changed to allow women to pursue higher education. She asked her father for permission to study so that she could pass the test to enter a university. He gave her permission, but he wanted her to first earn a license that would allow her to teach for a living. She earned a license to teach French, and she began to study in two years what the gymnasiums attempted to teach boys in eight years. She studied so hard that her sisters would tease her if she would even walk across a room without a book in her hand. Her hard work paid off — she passed the entrance to enter the university. Even after getting her degree, finding work was difficult. For a while, she worked in a laboratory whose male head claimed to have worried often about a female scientist with an elaborate hairdo because it might catch on fire. This male had a beard, but he seems not to have worried that it might catch on fire. In addition, she was once asked to write an article for an encyclopedia, but after the editor discovered that she was a woman, he retracted his offer, giving as his reason that he “would not think of printing an article written by a woman!”

Cheeky Watson was a highly rated white soccer player in apartheid-era South Africa. In 1976, he began to help coach a new team of black soccer players despite the legally mandated segregation that existed then. Seeing the conditions in which the black team practiced and played, Mr. Watson grew furious. The white teams had fully lighted soccer fields. The black team he helped coach had to practice in the lights of five automobiles despite the existence of fully lit soccer fields nearby. Mr. Watson asked for permission for the black players to use the fully lit fields at his soccer club, but the white soccer teams, including his own team, turned down his request. He quit the soccer club. He coached the black soccer team after 5 p.m. because all of the players worked in factories and could not practice or play any earlier. Because of this, he was found guilty of breaking a law that forbade a white person from being present in a black township after 5 p.m. Mr. Watson gave up a lot in his stand against apartheid, including a chance to be a member of the South African national soccer team, but he does not regret it. He says, “I can sleep at night because I have a clear conscience.”

Boston Celtic Bill Russell’s grandfather was a proud man who knew how to stick up for himself. Once, he worked a year for a white farmer, doing such things as plowing a field and planting seeds in return for a share of the sales of the crops. However, the white farmer did not pay him fairly when the crops were sold. Mr. Russell’s grandfather let the white farmer know what he thought, and the white farmer threatened him. Mr. Russell’s grandfather ended up pulling a gun on the white farmer, who threatened, “We’ll get you for this! Tonight!” Mr. Russell’s grandfather knew who would be coming that night: the Night Riders, aka the Ku Klux Klan. He first moved his family to safety, then he returned to his house with a gun and a dog. That night, as expected, the Night Raiders came, and they ordered Mr. Russell’s grandfather to come out of the house and take a beating. He told them that they would have to come in the house after him. One of the Klansman fired a shot at the house, and Mr. Russell’s grandfather fired his shotgun into the darkness. The Night Riders ran away.

Back in the Jim Crow days, Althea Gibson was a major African-American tennis star. Unfortunately, white people dominated tennis, and the USLTA would not let her enter its competitions. White player Alice Marble challenged the USLTA to let Ms. Gibson compete against the best American players. Because Ms. Marble was so famous and so well respected, the USLTA changed its policy and let Ms. Gibson compete. Sometimes, not being a racist is well rewarded. English tennis player Angela Buxton, a Caucasian, needed a doubles partner, as did Ms. Gibson, so the two teamed up together — and they won the doubles championship at both the French Open and Wimbledon. In 1957, Ms. Gibson became the first black tennis player to win a singles’ championship at Wimbledon.

During his career, African-American baseball player Frank Robinson had to endure a lot of racism. While he was still a minor-league player for the Columbia, South Carolina, team in the South Atlantic, aka Sally, League, he could hear racial taunts from the fans while he was playing or in the dugout. At one point, he decided to quit professional baseball. His team left to go on a road trip, but he stayed behind and started packing. Fortunately, the only other black player on the team, Marv Williams, also stayed behind and talked to him all night and convinced him not to quit. If not for Mr. Williams, Mr. Robinson would never have hit 586 career home runs in the major leagues and have won a World Series ring with the Baltimore Orioles.

Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo once stayed at a hotel in Detroit, but they discovered that no Jews were permitted there. Mr. Rivera shouted, “But Frida and I have Jewish blood! We are going to have to leave!” In fact, they did have Jewish blood. His paternal grandfather had married a Mexican of Portuguese-Jewish descent, and Frida’s mother was a Jewish Hungarian immigrant. Because Diego and Frida were international celebrities, the hotel immediately changed its policy.

© 2015, David Bruce, All Rights Reserved

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