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Two sisters with one message

Ruth Thornton and Jo Ivester speak at the 30th annual NAACP/Jewish Cross Cultural Program on Jan. 14 at Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City. Their presentation was entitled "Sister Stories: The Power of One." [Photo by Carla Hinton, The Oklahoman]
Ruth Thornton and Jo Ivester speak at the 30th annual NAACP/Jewish Cross Cultural Program on Jan. 14 at Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City. Their presentation was entitled "Sister Stories: The Power of One." [Photo by Carla Hinton, The Oklahoman]



Two sisters - one white, one black - shared a message of resiliency and hope at a recent Oklahoma City gathering commemorating the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Jo Ivester, who is white, learned about standing up for justice despite the costs when her white Jewish family moved to a predominantly black town in rural Mississippi in 1967. Several decades later, Ruth Reid-Thornton, who is black,  confronted racial prejudice as a black student at a predominantly white women's college in Massachusetts.

The two women were guest speakers for the 30th annual NAACP/Jewish Cross Cultural Program on Sunday, Jan. 14, at Temple B'nai Israel, 4901 N Pennsylvania. Their presentation was entitled "Sister Stories: The Power of One."

"It's fitting that we are in this room with a diverse group. We are storytellers to help people step out of their comfort zone and embrace others who are different than them," Thornton said.

Ivester shared similar comments, saying that she has always felt that the Jewish and black communities have shared a connections "that runs very deep."

"Those of us in this room tonight have a shared desire to remember our history so we can move forward in the future," she said.

The women shared a bit of their own personal history before sharing some of their experiences confronting bigotry. 

Ivester's parents divorced after 30 years of marriage. Later, her father embarked on another 30-year union, marrying Thornton's mother when Thornton was 14. He formally adopted Thornton when she was a senior in high school. 

Ivester, who lives in the Fort Worth, Texas, area, and Thornton, who lives in California, said their age and location differences meant their experiences were very different but they both faced challenges due to racial prejudice in America.

Ivester described what it was like when her family moved to Mount Bayou, Mississippi, in 1967, where her physician father ran a medical clinic. She talked about the grief that overcame the predominantly black town on the day that Martin Luther King was assassinated. 

"It was personal in our town. Everyone was grieving," she said.

Ivester said some of the youths marched through the town in a peaceful way to express their grief. In the black part of the town, elders came out and sat on their porches and began to sing hymns as the youths marched past them. In the white part of the community, there was absolute silence because the white population had drawn their curtains and withdrawn into their homes, afraid to watch, Ivester said. The youths ended at the school house where they turned facing white policemen pointing rifles at them and began to sing "We Shall Overcome."

Ivester said other white people spit at her family several times, angry that the determined Bostonians dared to live with and aid blacks (her mother eventually became a beloved teacher there).

"There were people who spit at us from their cars because we were an integrated group. In some ways, they were more mad at me for playing with black kids," Ivester said.

"Think about that -- the hatred for the kids for being black. What a sad statement."

Thornton, a medical doctor, talked about creating an eight-week course designed to educate black youths about black history. Called the "Black to the Future Experience," the interactive course recently debuted at a school and Thornton said she wants to try to get it in the hands of youths middle school age or younger.

Thornton said her adopted father gave her books that detailed some of the racial prejudice found in many areas of the country. She said she had not encountered that type of bigotry growing up in her diverse area of California.

So she was surprised when she went to Wellesley College in Boston in the early 1980's and found that it was segregated in many ways. Many of the clubs and organizations were segregated but by her senior year, she was heartened when the Black Christian Fellowship group and Wellesley Christian Fellowship had started joining together for activities.

"When you think back, where did the Civil Rights movement start? It started with people of faith," Thornton said.

People sit at tables after enjoying a meal before the beginning of the 2018 NAACP/Jewish Cross Cultural Program on Jan. 14 at Temple B'nai Israel. [Photo by Carla Hinton, The Oklahoman]
People sit at tables after enjoying a meal before the beginning of the 2018 NAACP/Jewish Cross Cultural Program on Jan. 14 at Temple B'nai Israel. [Photo by Carla Hinton, The Oklahoman]


Making a difference

Ivester offered the crowd several tips to make a difference:  

-- Don't just sit idly by when you see or hear something wrong. Speak up! 

-- Educate yourself about the issues at hand so that you can speak out about them.

-- Vote and let your politicians know that gerrymandering and denying people the right to vote is not OK.

-- Support organizations that fight for civil rights.

-- Get to know others in your community who are different.

"People, let's mingle. Let's get to know each other. Let's step out of our comfort zones and get to know other people. Let's hang out. With that growing familiarity comes an appreciation for the issues that we each face," Ivester said.

She said there is power in one person doing what is right and "when we stand together and we mingle, that power becomes magnified." 

Thirty years of fellowship

Rabbi Vered Harris, the temple's spiritual leader, praised Roosevelt Milton of the Oklahoma City NAACP and Rabbi David Packman, the temple's rabbi emeritus, for coming together to start the cross cultural program 30 years ago.

Rabbi Vered Harris, spiritual leader of Temple B'nai Israel, speaks to the crowd at the 30th annual NAACP/Jewish Cross Cultural Program on Jan. 14 at the temple in Oklahoma City. [Photo by Carla Hinton, The Oklahoman]
Rabbi Vered Harris, spiritual leader of Temple B'nai Israel, speaks to the crowd at the 30th annual NAACP/Jewish Cross Cultural Program on Jan. 14 at the temple in Oklahoma City. [Photo by Carla Hinton, The Oklahoman]


"When we want to fulfill the religious command to love our neighbors, we want to get to know them," she said. "For 30 years, we have at least joined together to share stories about Martin Luther King's legacy."  

In addition to the "sister stories," the program included music fitting the holiday. Guests sang "Lift Every Voice" and  "God Down Moses" together. Twice, attendees stood at their tables, held hands and sang "We Shall Overcome," some swaying together in solidarity at the poignant words of the Civil Rights anthem.   

Closing out the program, Garland Pruitt, president of the Oklahoma City Branch of the NAACP, said the women's friendship and efforts to bring change showed that they were unified, even though they were different in many ways.

"The sisters don't look like each other. There ain't none of us here today that don't bleed red blood," he said.

"It takes all of us, not me, not you, but we," to confront and overcome bigotry and transform America.     

Carla Hinton

Religion Editor

Ruth Thornton and Jo Ivester speak at the 30th annual NAACP/Jewish Cross Cultural Program on Jan. 14 at Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City. Their presentation was entitled "Sister Stories: The Power of One." [Photo by Carla Hinton, The Oklahoman]
Ruth Thornton and Jo Ivester speak at the 30th annual NAACP/Jewish Cross Cultural Program on Jan. 14 at Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City. Their presentation was entitled "Sister Stories: The Power of One." [Photo by Carla Hinton, The Oklahoman]


Related Photos
Ruth Thornton and Jo Ivester speak at the 30th annual NAACP/Jewish Cross Cultural Program on Jan. 14 at Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City. Their presentation was entitled "Sister Stories: The Power of One." [Photo by Carla Hinton, The Oklahoman]

Ruth Thornton and Jo Ivester speak at the 30th annual NAACP/Jewish Cross Cultural Program on Jan. 14 at Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City. Their presentation was entitled "Sister Stories: The Power of One." [Photo by Carla Hinton, The Oklahoman]

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Carla Hinton

Carla Hinton, an Oklahoma City native, joined The Oklahoman in 1986 as a National Society of Newspaper Editors minority intern. She began reporting full-time for The Oklahoman two years later and has served as a beat writer covering a wide... Read more ›

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