Twenty years ago, Billings set the standard for community rejection of hatred and bigotry by saying no to racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic ultra-right-wing extremist behavior.
We all know the story of how extremist hateful and bigoted activity tried to send a message that you were not welcome in Billings or America if you were black, Latino, Indian, Jewish or gay.
Billings’ response was a continuum of courage over many months, culminating in a single act of solidarity that was stunning in its simplicity and its strength.
When a rock crashed through the bedroom window of 5-year Jewish child during Hanukkah, Billings’ folks started a show of solidarity by placing small paper drawings of menorahs in windows across town. Then the Billings Gazette printed in the newspaper a full page colored drawing of a menorah, suggesting it be placed in windows across the city. Suddenly over 10,000 menorahs sprouted up in homes, proudly demonstrating that Billings stood tall against bigoted extremism.
What Billings did then made me proud, as a Montanan, as an American and as a human being.
In Billings the concept of “Not in Our Town” was born, eventually sprouting up in many other communities across the country, creating a national “Not in Our Town,” NIOT, movement.
As the epicenter of the NIOT idea, Billings garnered a positive national and international identity. New York City recognized Billings’ leaders by presenting them with the Big Apple’s prestigious Crystal Apple, usually reserved for major national and international leaders.
World-renowned photographer Frederic Brenner’s dramatic photograph of hundreds of Billings’ folks holding menorahs was featured in Life magazine.
Now, 20 years later, Billings is to host a national “Not in Our Town” conference to recognize both its past accomplishments and the challenges of extreme bigotry and hatred that still face our nation today.
Billings was selected for the national conference not just because of its NIOT identity but because of its moral leadership.
But that moral leadership is challenged today by renewed bigotry, hatred and intolerance. When the Billings City Council was recently approached for financial support for the National NIOT Conference, right-wing religious types came forward, claiming that any city support would advance “the homosexual agenda.” Echoing the past, they also railed against future city passage of an anti-discrimination ordinance like those passed in Missoula, Helena and Butte.
The City Council seemed cowed by the intolerant rhetoric from the right and to this point hasn’t put a single penny into the effort. Then, shockingly, the Billings Gazette, a moral champion 20 years ago, editorially argued against any city money to support the commemorative conference.
Showing concern for pennies over principle, the Gazette has apparently forgotten that it has a responsibility to not just reflect the values of the community, but also to occasionally lead the community in the right direction.
The right direction for Billings is clear. Will its city government and its leading newspaper allow the mostly homophobic bigotry of the right to tarnish Billings’ sterling, positive, world-wide reputation? Given their timid approach so far, it’s legitimate to question if Billings can live up to its legacy.
(Evan Barrett of Butte, but formerly from Red Lodge and Roundup, has spent the last 45 years at the top level of Montana economic development, government, politics and education. He is currently the Director of Business & Community Outreach and an instructor at Highlands College of Montana Tech. These are his personal views.)