Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Martin Luther King Day 2014: Stanley Rygor, My Activist Grandfather

in honor of Martin Luther King day, I would like to tell a story about my family--specifically my grandfather. I learned this story at Christmas this year.

In my family's home, civil rights pioneers of the time were in pictures all over the house. Martin Luther King, Kennedy, etc. There is an awesome picture of my family with a picture of Dr. King "photobombing" the photo. I will post it in comments.

My grandfather Stanley is a very principled kind of guy. He's the kind of guy who will strike up a conversation with you, and if he finds out you have nowhere to go where you are loved, cherished, and appreciated, he will bring you to the next gathering at his house. It doesn't matter if that's Thanksgiving, Christmas, or somebody's birthday party. There is an open door policy at my grandparents' house for anyone who is struggling to come have tea. I know, I know, in the middle of New York and everything?

My grandfather is a New Yorker. He has lived on the same block for the majority of his life. He taught me what integrity and openness really were, not just once but about a million times. At Christmas, he had another lesson to teach me. He engaged me in conversation about the 1960s. He told me about sneaking into the back of NAACP meetings and hiding in the very back row of seats. He told me about the day that it was decided by the people presiding over the meeting he attended that he should be allowed to come to the front, with them. (My grandfather is white.) Soon, my grandfather was a very active participant. He was so active, that he was bringing the entire meeting into his house. He was also conducting research in which he would be paired with another woman (not my grandmother) and try to get an apartment as a white couple. They could always get an offer of the apartment, even if a black couple sent from the ranks of the NAACP meeting could not receive the same offer. (i.e. every time.)

Although it took some time for him to get there, my grandfather later took this same basic belief in human dignity and applied it to GLBT rights. As of my last understanding, he has two GLBT children plus me, his granddaughter. I can honestly tell you that it completely meant the world to me when I saw my grandfather see the light on GLBT rights. I am extremely grateful to have witnessed it, from both sides, even though he is not my father. Technically, I am not sure what my grandfather knows or doesn't know about my status as a GLBT American but I can tell you that what is important is what I know about my grandfather. We don't agree on every political issue but he taught me to always be warm and welcoming to people, even when you might be struggling that day yourself. I do not always uphold this--I can have visceral "no way" reactions to people, and I will honor those too. I have been through enough in New York, Boston, and online, that to not honor my "inner ding" on that stuff would be really, really detrimental. But that said, I try to keep an open mind about most people, and I have people around me from a variety of political persuasions and religious or spiritual ideologies.

As long as you respect me, I respect you. My grandfather taught me that. I've honestly never met a more respectful, genuine guy. On this Martin Luther King Day, I am honoring Dr. King, but I am also honoring my grandpa Stanley because he deserves to be known as a guy with deep and abiding principles who has done a ton of good in the world. I am honored to be a part of his family because he showed me how to demonstrate pretty much unconditional love to any New Yorker he could find.

That's what New York is about to me, and it always will be. NAACP meetings in the home of a white family at the dawn of the civil rights movement. How much more melting pot can you get?

Stanley Rygor, I salute you.

Happy Martin Luther King Day, all.:)

ETA: As a postscript to this entry, it came to my attention through the retelling of this story that in addition to doing this activism in 1960s NYC there are also stories of my grandfather doing comparable activism in Rhodesia, where we have family.  Although I haven't heard the full story yet I hope to one day soon.