Dr. Leon Bass fought for his country as a World War II soldier, but his country told him he wasn't good enough to drink from a public water fountain, he said.
He was angry because of the racism he experienced. But when he saw the atrocities people experienced in a concentration camp in Germany, he vowed to take action.
"I made up my mind if I ever got out of this war alive I was going to do something when I got home," Bass said.
A 19-year-old soldier in World War II, Bass is 87 now and has spent at least three decades traveling the country telling audiences how others suffered when there was no regard for human rights.
Bass spoke to about 60 people attending the Office of Multicultural Affairs' Human Rights Day commemoration Monday. The day was the 64th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.
Office of Multicultural Affairs administrator Beverly Cosley said she wishes more people could have heard Bass' story.
"Everyone has a right to dignity and respect regardless of who you are and where you live," she said. "We are all human beings, and we need to be treated as that."
Bass told the audience a narrative of his life from age 18 when he joined the military to being a teacher and high school principal who transformed Philadelphia's lowest-performing school.
He spoke about the human rights struggle of blacks in America, including how Freedom Fighters were beaten and killed for equality and how the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated after preaching messages of love and nonviolence.
Several people listened and grunted softly as he described the frustration he felt as a soldier who had taken an oath to fight for his country but regularly experienced racism.
Then he talked about how his perspective on his own suffering changed after visiting a concentration camp in Germany during the war. He realized then that mistreatment wasn't exclusive to him but affected people all over the world, and that sometimes others had experienced more suffering than he.
Bass said the people in the concentration camp were so emaciated that they looked like the walking dead.
He saw one man who held out his hands to show that his fingers had webbed together with the scabs from sores caused by malnutrition.
"I said, 'Oh, God. What is this?' I had seen death and dying in the war, but nothing like this. Nothing," Bass recounted.
Even then he didn't know how many people had suffered, Bass said. He thought it was just camps in a part of Germany. It wasn't until he got home that he realized millions of people had been killed in concentration camps.
Bass told his audience that probably everyone in the room had experienced some form of hatred or rejection regardless of their color or religion.
"All of us in this room have pain," he said. "We were all told we weren't good enough. It doesn't matter if you're black or white, Catholic or Jewish. People look for reasons to hate you because they feel if they do that, then they are superior to you. So we all have a responsibility."
Chattanooga Organized for Action, the Grove Street Settlement House and other community groups also hosted a Human Rights Day observance.
Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 423-757-6431.