After almost four decades of social justice activism, New Hampshire civil rights leader Arnie Alpert is retiring from the American Friends Service Committee.
Arnie Alpert joined NHPR’s All Things Considered host Peter Biello to discuss some of the highlights of his career.
(Below is a lightly edited transcript of the interview.)
Alpert pushed to make Martin Luther King Day a holiday in New Hampshire. The Granite State was the last state to make it a holiday in 1999. He spoke on the occasion.
“We should remember something else about Dr. King that might be more important for us. Martin Luther King Jr. did not let victory turn him around either. When the Civil Rights Act passed, he was not deluded into thinking racism had been vanquished. When the Voting Rights Act passed, he did not fool himself that the promise of democracy had been realized for everyone.”
Two decades later, Alpert won another major victory when New Hampshire abolished the death penalty. Arnie Alpert is with me now, thank you very much for speaking with me.
You joined the American Friends Service Committee almost 39 years ago. How has New Hampshire changed since then?
You know, Peter we might even ask how New Hampshire hasn't changed since then
The state still has a 19th century―maybe it’s an 18th century―tax structure. We still have inadequate funding for public education. We still have insufficient respect for workers, we still have problems with systematic racism
Can you tell me one thing that you think has moved in a positive direction?
I think that the state’s progress towards recognizing the rights of gay and lesbian and transgender people has been remarkable.
We were able to go from a non-discrimination bill to full-fledged marriage equality legislated by our government, and in a remarkably short period of time.
Martin Luther King Day is now a familiar date on the American calendar, but the fight to commemorate it in New Hampshire was a long one, you were involved in that. Can you explain the pushback?
The pushback was complicated, much of it orchestrated on the editorial page of the state’s largest newspaper, which argued that Dr. King should not be honored with a holiday because of the stand he took against the U.S. war in Vietnam.
And I would also say, Peter, is that what’s most important in the time that we’re in now, is that one of the things that we also said during all of those years, is that the King holiday is not important primarily as a historical commemoration of historical events that took place in the 1950s and 1960s, but that the King holiday is an important moment for us to understand ourselves, and to think about what our role is as we aspire towards a role with racism done away with.
You helped coordinate the campaign to end the death penalty in New Hampshire. Why was that issue, or was that issue, personal to you?
As someone who is committed to bringing about a less violent world and a less violent community, the idea that the state would be conspiring to take away people’s lives was something that has always been offensive to me. There’s plenty of reasons why the death penalty was wrong: it was a bad use of resources, it did not honor the needs of crime victims, it was prone to mistakes because of the racist nature of our justice system, and the classist nature of our justice system and on and on.
What was remarkable about the twenty years that it took to abolish the death penalty in New Hampshire is that we did it through people changing their minds. People who start out supporters of the death penalty began to see that the death penalty was wrong for a variety of reasons, and joined us in that effort to do away with it.
Even before the pandemic, there’s been a rise in online activism, hashtag activism, some may say. Is social media a good tool for social justice?
Well we need all the tools we can use, Peter. I’m still an advocate of human contact, I’m in the old dog camp with regards to this. But certainly over the last few months, as we’ve not even been able to have in-person meetings with people, I’ve come to appreciate that ability to conduct interviews like this, for example, using technology, rather than sitting across the room from you in the NHPR studio.
So I think that we all have to use the technology that is at our disposal and make the most of it, but that ultimately, we need relationships between people.
You’ve been on the frontlines of major civil rights battles in New Hampshire. What’s the next most important issue for the state to address?
What we’re seeing right now is the pandemic is shining a bright spotlight on the inequities which lead poor people and people of color to be much more prone to getting sick. We see the pandemic shedding a spotlight on the fact that many of the workers that we now deem to “essential” are working in situations in which they are exposed to hazards and are not adequately compensated for their labor.
We’re seeing a situation, in light of the George Floyd murder, in which we have systems of racism and brutality, and all of those create challenges for us in the time going forward. I come back to what we learned from Dr. King, that these evils are related to each other, and that we can, in fact, persist.
Arnie Alpert, thanks so much for speaking with me, I really appreciate it.
Thanks for having me, Peter.