The year of his birth was 1884, and at less than one year of age, John James Mates, my grandfather of Irish-Catholic heritage, sailed to America and into the Pennsylvania coal region. 1860’s America was not a particularly welcoming place to the Irish as evidenced by this quote from the 1868, Chicago Post.
“The Irish fill our prisons, our poor houses . . . Scratch a convict or a pauper, and the chances are that you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic. Putting them on a boat and sending them home would end crime in this country.”
Like so many at that time, John helped to support his family — as a slate picker in the mines at age six. He was self-schooled but never without a book that I can remember. He went on to become John L. Lewis’ assistant, United Mine Workers of America, President of Mine Committee Local Union 1550, and represented the UMWA at the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions held in Paris in 1948.
John J. Mates was no stranger to the KKK. Traveling by train through the Appalachian coal mining region on union business, he was met at gunpoint by a member of the klan. In the 1930’s, the klan hated Blacks, Jews, and Catholics. Fast forward to 2015, and I regretfully venture to say that xenophobia, ethnic/racial/and religious bigotry is evidenced throughout much of America. On a recent road trip across Ohio I saw on several occasions the Confederate Flag hanging with the US Flag.
In the aftermath of the Paris, Lebanon, and now Mali terrorist attacks, I like most Americans, have been glued to the news channels. However, I find the political rhetoric and fear-mongering engaged by presidential candidates and our elected officials most un-American. A game plan for a Muslim registry/database, and closure of houses of worship smacks of the Nazi era. What’s the next step – concentration/internment camps similar to what Japanese-Americans were subjected during World War II America?
60 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide, and almost half are children, and they are the ones who will suffer the most. Barring innocent refugees from Syria from entering the land of the free and realizing their dreams, let alone just staying alive, is not “America”. Says UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon: “Millions of refugees who have lost everything to violence and oppression want to end those threats more than anyone. They can potentially be a major constituency in combating violent extremism.” (See more: “Ban Warns of ‘Misplaced Suspicions’ of Muslim Refugees, Migrants after Terror Attacks.”)
I look back to fond memories of my grandfather and his unwavering patriotism. Every day, even into his nineties, he took great pride and raised the American flag at his Pennsylvania home symbolizing “liberty and justice for all.” To fight terrorism we cannot resort to cowardice. We need to unite and stand tall and uncompromising in our American principles to continue as the world leader and vanquish terrorists and haters to keep the America my grandfather and your’s espoused and cherished. (See: “We’ve all been Refugees as Old as War and Natural Disaster.”)
By, Susan Sacirbey