We Must Not Fail to Protest

My first act of protest against injustice was over a topic that, in hindsight and in light of the events our country faces now, seems inconsequential. 

I was harassed by a school employee for wearing short skirts in high school in the late 1980s. I still remember her name: Mrs. Baumgartner. She would bring me to the office and make me go home to change if my skirt didn’t reach below my knees. 

I was an honor student and a member of the debate team, but she would search for me to see how I was dressed in the morning. When I questioned why it mattered how I dressed, she told me that wearing short skirts was distracting to the educational process. 

Cheerleaders wore their uniforms to school every Friday. They wore shorter skirts than I owned and did cartwheels in front of the student body with their names embroidered on their undergarments. 

Why was this not distracting to the educational process, yet my clothing was considered distracting?

My mother joined me in the fight and contacted the school district’s administration on my behalf. 

Instead of changing the dress code, the administration took away the cheerleaders’ uniforms. 

In Texas, my act of protest against an unfair dress code rule resulted in hurting a sacred football tradition and turned me immediately into persona non grata

Football players would walk behind me in the halls, calling me names. They threatened to kill my dog and put him in my locker. I was petrified, but I refused to back down. 

One of my mother’s coworkers heard about the debacle and sent me a quote that gave me courage and remains with me to this day.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” 

These words were written by Elie Wiesel, a writer who survived the Holocaust. 

As I watch young people today speak out against the hate the president is normalizing, I’m reminded of this time in my life. 

I was standing up against the way we were allowed to dress. I am definitely not equating that to the horrors Mr. Weisel experienced, but his beautiful words inspired me as a young woman. 

Young people today are leading the movement to speak out against neo-nazism and white supremacy. I am scared for them, but I’m also so proud of them. 

My daughter is 19 years old and attends college in Massachusetts. I’m frightened of what could happen to her if she attends a counter-protest. I saw Heather Heyer’s mother bravely speak at her daughter’s funeral. I don’t know that I would have that strength. 

I do know that, as uncomfortable as it might be, we need to have an honest conversation about race in this country. My southern grandmother would be furious to see the cowardice and justification white Americans are displaying instead of facing the pain of others. 

I keep returning to Elie Weisel’s words. We may be powerless to prevent the hate of the neo-nazis and white supremacists who have been empowered by the president. We must never fail to protest it. 

Jennifer Gregory is a former public school teacher and librarian and the mother of two adult children.  She lives in Covington, Texas.  

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