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Saturday, Apr. 30, 2016

Gray Matter: Immigration and language usage

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

We hear much these days concerning our nation's immigration issues, including the pros and cons of the use of "English Only." Often it's made to sound as though these problems are of recent origin, until someone thoughtfully reminds us that we are, after all, a nation of immigrants.

Have you ever thought of  what it was like for your ancestors who first arrived on American soil? For example, I've been told that German-speaking housewives, who had arrived in Cherokee County shortly before WW I, often discussed personal matters in their native tongue, on the newly installed telephones. This was fine until the war broke out. 

Suddenly, at that time, English-speaking party line members began making all sorts of troublesome accusations. This was but one of many difficult situations. In our neighboring state of Nebraska laws were passed preventing the teaching of the German language in schools.  That led to an intriguing story with local connections which I think you might find interesting.

The Rev. Reuben Meyer, who served here in Marcus as the first called pastor of Peace Lutheran Church  (1946-1960), was the son of Robert T. Meyer, a parochial school teacher in Nebraska.  The school patrons wanted German instruction for their children, so Meyer, though he was aware of the new law, thought it would be all right to teach them during the noon lunch hour. This "subversive" action was soon discovered and he was arrested and convicted. His case subsequently lost appeals all the way through the Nebraska court system. 

In later years, R.T. Meyer described the matter as, " totally out of my hands. Only my name was attached to it." It seems other concerned citizens carried the case on until it was finally appealed to the nation's highest venue, the U.S. Supreme Court. 

There, in 1923, the decision was reversed and Mr. Meyer totally exonerated. That decision was based on the principle that "parents, not the state, have the primary responsibility for their children's education." It is the importance of this principle that  has caused it to become a landmark case, still regularly cited, particularly in the field of Education Law.

An interesting side bar: Some years ago, a local young man who was in law school read a scholarly treatise in a Constitutional Law course on the case of "Meyer vs. the State of Nebraska." He was later fascinated to learn that "Meyer" was the father of his favorite pastor.