By LINDSAY CAREY
On Jan. 15, a Southington High School (SHS) English teacher welcomed a semi-annual guest speaker to talk to students about his experiences during the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s.
Deacon Arthur Miller said he visits around 30 to 40 schools all over the country from Yale to the University of California. Despite his busy schedule, he makes time to come to SHS twice a year to share his personal story and message for young people.
“This is probably the only place I come to twice a year,” said Miller.
SHS English Teacher Janice Zaccardo said that she invites Miller to speak twice each year after teaching the civil rights unit to her class.
“Some of the students heard him speak when they were freshman, and they still come to hear him speak now that they’re seniors,” said Zaccardo.
Miller spoke a lot about his childhood at his most recent visit.
Miller grew up in Chicago in a segregated America and was friends with Emmett Till, a black teenager who was brutally murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1955. Miller said Till lived in his neighborhood.
“He sat next to my brother in school,” said Miller of his childhood friend.
Miller said that he got to know Till really well the summer before he was killed. Miller had witnessed a group of boys, including Till, break the car windows of a negro league baseball player who lived in the area.
Although he didn’t participate in the window bashing, Miller said he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and somehow ended up being grouped in with the boys when it came time for punishment. Miller said the boys had to clean up the man’s yard every day for two weeks.
Miller said that the day Till died changed him forever.
“I had a blissful childhood until that day,” said Miller. “It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to deal with.”
As an adult, Miller went on to write a book about Till called “The Journey to Chatham: Why Emmet Till’s Murder Changed America.”
“When you look in the history books it says that Emmet Till was murdered for whistling at a white woman, but that’s not true,” said Miller. “He was murdered because that community was evil.”
However, Miller said he believes Till’s death sparked the beginning of the civil rights movement.
When Miller graduated high school in 1963, he became heavily involved in the civil rights movement and participated in protests led by Martin Luther King Jr. Some of the consequences of those protests included being arrested and risking his life for the cause of equality.
Although Miller’s story seemed to be a courageous one, he explained to the students that he was not always fearless. He told the students at SHS that when he was in high school he was also afraid of what people think.
Deacon Miller told the story of a young girl at his high school who was bullied by everyone—a story that many of the students could relate to. Although Miller said he did not participate in the name-calling and harassment, he said he still wishes he had stood up for her and been her friend.
“There is so much pressure to be cool, but if you have the courage to stand up and you will feel so much better about who you are,” said Miller.
Miller told the group of students about the Little Rock 9, a group of nine black students, who were the first to integrate into an all-white school. Miller spoke about the iconic image of a slanderous mob of grown adults harassing a 15 year-old black girl, Elizabeth Eckford, on her way to school.
After being prevented to enter the school by the chaotic crowd, Eckford sat down on a nearby bench by herself. Miller explained how one woman came out of the crowd and made sure Eckford got on a bus safely back home. Miller used this woman as an example of standing up for someone else in the face of adversity and said that the woman’s house was burned down the next day as a result.
“When you stand up for some other kid, they might call you names, too,” said Miller. “But you stand up, because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Miller also had an encouraging message for those who are the victims of bullies in school.
“The people who call you names, text, and tweet about you cannot diminish your value,” said Miller. “Don’t let anyone take your value, because they didn’t give it to you. It’s yours, and you all have the same value. You are all valuable.”
Miller said that he makes an effort to share this message with the youth, because it’s an age-old problem.
“When I look at them I’m talking to that 14 year old me and I wish someone would have told me you’re all the same,” said Miller.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Lindsay Carey, email her at lcarey@ southingtonobserver.com.