Billings Background Information

Acts of hatred and prejudice have always been with us. So too have individuals who refuse to accept such acts and are determined to resist.View Photos from Billings Montana

Occasionally, a whole community joins together to fight against bullies and bigots. People act knowing there is risk because, quite simply, it is “the right thing to do.” This is what happened during the holiday season of 1993 in the town of Billings, Montana.

Today, a stranger walking down Billings’s pleasant streets would have no way of knowing that extraordinary things happened there, events which were themselves inspired by people in another place and another time, over half a century ago.

From the award winning PBS Documentary
From the award winning PBS Documentary "Not in Our Town"

What gives people the courage to fight against hatred and the wisdom to understand just how important that fight is? What causes some communities to draw together when faced with acts of bigotry and violence, while other communities split apart? In Billings, it was a combination of factors including:

  • A family who, having been victimized by skinheads, eloquently spoke out and refused to be intimidated.
  • A police chief who understood the seriousness of hate crimes, even minor ones, and was determined that they would not be tolerated under any circumstances.
  • A lay church leader who remembered a story she had heard as a child, which she then used to help inspire her community.
  • Clergy of all faiths who were committed to genuinely practicing what they preached.
  • A newspaper which sought out and published the truth about local hate crimes and then used its editorial pages to urge the community to take a principled stand.
  • Town residents of many different races, religions, and backgrounds, who were willing to fight for a basic value despite threats of violence.

The people of Billings don’t consider themselves “heroes” or special or unique in any way. What happened in Billings, they point out, could happen in any town.

Yes…any town. And every town. It is our hope that someday the children who are involved in the Paper Candles play project will remember Billings and use its lessons in their own communities.

Though Paper Candles: How Courage and Goodness Triumphed In An American Town, is strongly based on fact, some of the events have been slightly altered and/or their sequence changed. I believe, however, that I have remained true to the spirit of the story.

The legend of King Christian and the Danes has been told and retold to millions of people since World War II. In fact, the Danish Jews were never ordered to wear the Star of David after the Nazi occupation, in part because there was little anti-Semitism in Denmark, and the Nazis knew the Danes and their good king would never cooperate.

Though King Christian did not ride out of the palace wearing a Jewish star, he always supported the Jewish community. The Danish people themselves took great risks in hiding their Jewish fellow citizens and helping them escape to Sweden in the fall of 1943.

Over the years, this legend, which inspired the citizens of Billings, has made an indelible mark on people’s hearts and minds, perhaps because it is about people acting on the highest principle: loving their neighbors as themselves.

Volunteers from the Painters Union paint over racist graffiti on Dawn Fast Horses' home in Billings, Montana. From the award winning PBS Documentary
Volunteers from the Painters Union paint over racist graffiti on
Dawn Fast Horse's home in Billings, Montana.
From the award winning PBS Documentary "Not in Our Town"

The acts of hate in Billings dramatically decreased after the events described in this book. There is, of course, no guarantee that the battle against bigotry will not have to be fought again. But for now, the haters are mostly quiet, aware that they will receive no hospitality from this “ordinary,” special town.

Please note:

There were many people in Billings who took courageous actions to fight against the acts of hate and intolerance in their city. This play, and my book, The Christmas Menorahs: How A Town Fought Hate, has focused, by necessity, on just a few individuals. Let me now pay tribute to those unsung heroes whom I have not written about, and mention two people who generously shared their time and thoughts with me: Sarah Anthony, who helped form the Billings Human Rights Coalition, and Uri Barnea, conductor of the Billings Symphony.

Janice I. Cohn, 2005

Billings Gazette, December 1993



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