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Zimmerman: Boston Marathon, long a melting pot for good

Let's remember the tolerant, multicultural spirit at the

Let's remember the tolerant, multicultural spirit at the heart of the Boston Marathon. Credit: Tribune Media Services / Paul Tong

A Chinese graduate student, killed by one of the explosions. An immigrant from Costa Rica, clad in a cowboy hat and assisting a victim who lost his legs. An Indian-American surgeon, charging toward the injured after completing the race himself.

And two Chechen brothers, suspected of causing all of this mayhem.

These images have haunted and inspired us since last Monday's bombings at the Boston Marathon. Lu Lingzi was studying statistics at Boston College. Carlos Arrendondo, who was handing out flags at the race, lost a son in Iraq. Dr. Vivek Shah is an orthopedic surgeon at New England Baptist Hospital, where he returned to work just a day after bandaging several of his fellow runners.

Much has been made of the marathon as a symbol of America's toughness in the face of adversity. As President Barack Obama said, visiting Boston on Thursday, "We will finish the race." But it's also a metaphor for our diversity, drawing thousands of people from around the world into a single shared space. And that brings heroism as well as cowardice, harmony alongside prejudice.

When the Boston Marathon began in 1897, it attracted working-class Italian and Irish competitors who were still regarded as separate races -- and, usually, as inferior ones -- by the city's native Protestant elite. The most celebrated runner was Johnny A. Kelley, one of 10 children born to an Irish immigrant father who delivered the mail.

Kelley ran a series of epic races against Ellison "Tarzan" Brown, a Narragansett Indian from neighboring Rhode Island, who had reportedly earned his nickname by diving into pools and lakes. According to one Boston journalist, Brown "inherited his natural skill at running from his savage ancestors." When Brown defeated Kelley in 1936, passing his rival on a steep incline in Newton that would thereafter be called "Heartbreak Hill," he told reporters that they "can't say after this that the only good Indian is a dead Indian."

But Brown also received congratulatory telegrams the next morning from the governor of Rhode Island and the mayor of Providence, reminding us how Americans could also move beyond their racial differences in pursuit of a shared goal. And after World War II, when foreign runners began to dominate the marathon, we learned to set aside national differences as well. It didn't matter where you came from, or where you would end up -- all that counted was how fast you ran in between.

Racism and prejudice continued, of course. When African-Americans began to compete in the Marathon in the 1950s and 1960s, some white commentators said they lacked the strength and stamina to run long distances. Ditto for women, who were barred from the event until 1972.

And lest you think we've transcended our bigotries, consider the wounded 20-year-old Saudi man who was fingered by some media outlets as a suspect on Monday. Why? He was seen running away from the carnage -- what any injured person would do. The next day, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick warned against treating "categories of people" in "uncharitable ways."

So if Boston supects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev turn out to have ties to Muslim fundamentalists, as has been reported, we shouldn't paint all Muslims as terrorists. Instead, let's remember the tolerant, multicultural spirit at the heart of this great American ritual. All three top male and female finishers in the 2013 Boston Marathon were from Ethiopia and Kenya.

They're favored to win next year, too.

Jonathan Zimmerman, author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory," is a professor of history and education at New York University.