Every child is taught in school how important it is to spread the lessons of equality and peace through love and compassion. They learn these ideals through the teachings of great leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. How many children are able to say they have put these ethics into actions to be a part of the change they wish to see?
The Westboro Baptist church, started in 1955, announced on their website, www.godhatesfags.com, that they were planning to come to my high school, Henry W. Grady High School, to “picket the 1338 worthless students”. About a year ago I stumbled across the Westboro Baptist Church on the internet, and I was stunned. There were images and videos of picketers holding signs that said, “God Hates Fags”, “Thank God for AIDS” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”. I could not believe that there was such hate in this world. I knew America was filled with people who opposed same-sex marriages and saw homosexuality as a sin, but I had never seen people preaching the word of God through hate.
After being informed of Westboro’s intentions to come to Grady, I knew something had to be done. I quickly made a Facebook group that evening titled “Grady High School’s Counter- Protest to Westboro Baptist Church”. I expected maybe 25 people to join the group, and before the night was finished, 300 people joined. On the Facebook page I gave a little summary on what Westboro stood for and that we cannot tolerate this kind of hatred coming into our community. I also posted premature ideas on a counter-protest, and the idea to raise money for AID Atlanta, a non-profit organization that helps people living with HIV/AIDS, also an organization that Westboro would loathe. I knew it couldn’t be just your average protest though. We had to come at it from a different angle. We had to build our message on love and have no interaction with the church.
The next morning when I arrived at school many people came up to me with lots of praise for my efforts. I was so happy to know I had support from my whole school. Then I came across some students and teachers who opposed my ideas. They thought the best thing to do would be to completely ignore Westboro and not waste our time on their protest. While I knew this wasn’t the worst idea, I knew more had to be done.
There has been a pattern throughout history of people ignoring hate. People often silence their voice and opinions because they feel that voicing their opinions is worthless. Martin Niemöller, an original supporter of Adolf Hitler and later an opponent, said “They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up.” Millions of lives could have been saved throughout our world’s history, if society had risen up to spread the power of love. We needed to become that voice for the millions of people who live in silence every day.
The students of Grady High School finally agreed with me 100% that something had to be done. We did not want a hate group coming into our community preaching their twisted, hateful words. We knew their protest to love would do damage to the residents of our neighborhood, which has a large LGBT community. It became unanimous that whatever we did was to be completely separate from Westboro. This was no longer just about Westboro, it became something much bigger and better. Our focus was spreading our message of love and acceptance.
By the 3rd day after creating the Facebook group, the membership reached over 2,000. I was in complete shock. I had received numerous messages and e-mails from people of all walks of life giving the most amazing support. To tell you the truth, I was scared that I would receive harsh and hateful messages, seeing as I live in the South. It was so refreshing to see that so many people in the South support such a beautiful message and that we are making a positive change for the future.
During the meetings at Grady, we were constantly trying to decide the location of our assembly. We decided on all of our activities and what our message was that we were going to send to the world, we just needed a place where we could gather without breaking any laws. We had a fellow student write a letter to our principal requesting the approval for us to hold our demonstration on the school’s property. While we were brainstorming ideas to include in the proposal we decided on a name for our cause: A.T.L (Acceptance, Tolerance, and Love). This name spoke completely for itself. It encompassed our messages and even played on our location and the city we have all grown to love.
While we anxiously waited for a response on whether we could hold a demonstration on school property, Alex Wan, the Atlanta City Councilperson for District 6, which includes Grady, contacted me. He told me he wanted to help with whatever he could, and I asked him to see if we could demonstrate in Piedmont Park, which neighbors Grady High School. Alex did everything in his power and made this happen. His help was truly a blessing, and without it, we may not have been able to demonstrate our message.
So now it is set. We are finally going to make our voices heard on Thursday, May 6, 2010 at 3:15 in Piedmont Park. Many voices that have been silent for years will be able to rejoice with the comfort and support from their community. This whole journey originally started by students being outraged because a hate group planned on invading their vicinity, and it has blossomed into a celebration of the strongest and most valuable message on Earth, and that is love, in all forms.
Photo – top: Grady High School students organize a counter-protest to Westboro Baptist Church’s Atlanta visit (courtesy Becca Daniels).