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Friends on the march

In the fight against racism and poverty in Boston's neighborhoods, Ron Bell and Sid Topol walk the walk together

Ron Bell (left) and Sid Topol will lead the 'Retracing the Struggle March' tomorrow.
Ron Bell (left) and Sid Topol will lead the "Retracing the Struggle March" tomorrow. (Globe Staff Photo / Michele McDonald)

Sid Topol is an 81-year-old retiree who grew up in Grove Hall, the section of the city that lies in both Dorchester and Roxbury, when it was all Jewish. He graduated from Boston Latin School in 1941 and enjoyed a lucrative career as a pioneer in satellite communications.

Ron Bell is a 42-year-old black man who grew up in Mission Hill and graduated from Boston Latin in 1981. He works in Grove Hall at the Freedom House, which in an earlier life was the Hebrew Teachers College. He is a deacon at Greater Love Tabernacle in Dorchester, which was once a synagogue.

When the two men met five years ago, there was an immediate connection. Besides their affinity for Grove Hall and their shared alma mater, they found something bigger that united them: a passion for racial justice. Tomorrow at 1 p.m., the two will link arms and help lead a march from the First Church in Roxbury to the Boston Common, singing black spirituals along the way.

''Be sure to print the words out for me," Topol reminds Bell.

The men are sitting in Bell's office at Freedom House in the heart of Grove Hall. They laugh as they recall how they met. Topol was being honored by the American Jewish Council at a fancy testimonial dinner downtown. ''I said if this is going to be an event for me, it's going to be all about building bridges," says Topol. So in addition to reserving tables for his colleagues from the corporate world, for his family and friends, and for Jewish organizations, he reserved a table for Grove Hall and Mattapan activists, both Christian and Muslim.

Bell was at that table. ''When I heard Sid went to Boston Latin, I wanted to meet him," he says. So at the end of the dinner, he offered Topol a ride home. A friendship was born.

The ''Retracing the Struggle March" will take a route similar to the one walked by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 to protest school segregation. US Representative John Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia, will lead the walk, which commemorates the 40th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march. Bell is organizing the urban minority community, Topol the suburban Jewish community. They hope for a turnout of thousands.

''When Ron and I met, we suddenly saw we cared about the same things -- fighting racism, fighting poverty, fighting hatred," Topol says. They also discovered that they both had strong mothers who stressed the importance of community involvement. When Hurricane Katrina exposed the shameful truth about the living conditions of poor African-Americans in New Orleans, Topol picked up the phone and called Bell. When Bell needed support for the march, he called Topol.

''I was so upset watching Katrina and seeing the Lower Ninth Ward. I had to talk to someone. I called Ron," says Topol, who is on the board of several organizations, including Combined Jewish Philanthropies, WGBH, and the American Jewish Committee. He and Bell arranged for Bell's church to be used as a distribution center for hurricane evacuees. In addition, the church is sponsoring three families of Katrina victims, with Topol helping pay the bills. He is one of Grove Hall's few former white residents who returns regularly to his old neighborhood, he says, and Franklin Park remains his favorite golfing spot.

''A lot of people from the suburbs say, 'Are you crazy?' " He answers their question: ''First of all, they have no idea what is going on in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan today. If they came to Grove Hall, they'd be absolutely astounded at how much better it looks." Better than when it was a predominantly Jewish community? ''People were poor," Topol says. ''And when they got rich, they moved out."

Topol, whose parents were Polish immigrants, worked for Raytheon for 22 years, then became chairman and CEO of Scientific-Atlanta, a global communications business. He lived in Atlanta for 19 years before retiring and returning to Boston in 1990. What he found back home dismayed him. ''I was honestly shocked at the poor relations between blacks and whites in Boston," he says. ''Atlanta had gotten a lot farther ahead of us. I came back to Boston and went to social and political events and was amazed. Where were the African-Americans?" He began the Topol Family Fund, a charitable foundation devoted largely to fighting racism and poverty.

Bell was having a similar epiphany. The same year Topol came back from Atlanta, Bell founded Dunk the Vote, a nonprofit that registers new voters and gets them involved in community affairs. The catalyst was the Charles Stuart case, in which police sought a black man for the killing of a pregnant white woman; it turned out that her own husband had killed her.

Using sports and other events, Bell's mission is to increase political and social activism among minorities. In the month leading up to last year's Democratic National Convention, Dunk the Vote held a ''hip-hop summit" and registered 7,500 new voters. Bell's next step was to partner with the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities and other groups to organize the commemorative march.

Bell hopes the march will educate young people about the federal Voting Rights Act, some portions of which are up for reauthorization by Congress in 2007. ''Many of them have never heard of it," he says. But the overarching purpose of the march is to bring people of Boston together in a renewed commitment to pluralism, he says. ''Black, Latino, Asian, white, Christians, Jews, Muslims, young, elders, you name it. We want the Boston Common, when we get there, to look like the new Boston, with people in unity and harmony."

A few months back, when Bell called Topol and told him about the march, it immediately hit home. Topol's brother, now a retired labor lawyer, had marched in Selma. Moreover, Topol was already concerned about the relations between blacks and Jews, who were partners in protest in the 1960s. ''The traditional black-Jewish cord had been strained," Topol says. ''Blacks founded their own [civil rights] organizations." Being excluded hurt some of the Jewish activists, says Topol: ''Some had gotten bloodied. Some got killed." Later, many Jews were stung by anti-Semitic remarks made by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, he says.

Bell acknowledges there has been hurt and anger on both sides. ''There are some things that have been done by certain Jews that African-Americans feel were detrimental to their progress, but that does not mean we can't move forward," he says. ''I'm in the business of building bridges, not tearing them down." He and Topol note that both groups were once slaves, and both have a history of fighting discrimination.

Bell has spoken at synagogues on such issues, and last January he went to Israel with the Jewish Community Relations Council, a trip he calls ''life changing."

Topol smiles. ''I insisted he talk to Palestinians as well."

This week both men have been knocking on doors, making calls, sending e-mails, and organizing people around the common ground of justice. The march will include speeches by Representative Lewis, Senator John Kerry, Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Deval Patrick, and others. Bell is thinking of leading off the march with the spiritual ''This Little Light of Mine."

True to his promise to Topol, he is bringing the lyrics.

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