MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. DAY
The second public swearing-in ceremony of President Barack Obama, January 21, 2013, coincided with the celebration of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day national holiday. It might have been a high point because, even then, the number of anti-black hate groups was on the rise. Of course, white supremacy would explode into the mainstream in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. There was joy that January day, when African-Americans and other people looked back at King’s life and forward to Obama’s second term. There also was palpable concern regarding renewed backlash. I felt it as I walked along with marchers that winter morning through downtown Cincinnati.
Memorial experience adds to local MLK Reflections
January 16, 2012
One of the most powerful sights 14-year-old Ennis Tait experienced in October at the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial was that of older African-Americans weeping or cheering.
At first, he didn’t understand. “Then I realized, with what they lived through they thought it would never happen,” said the Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy freshman from St. Bernard.
Cathi Alexander experienced that range of emotions on October 16 in Washington, D.C. The 33-year Cincinnati Public Schools teacher remembers when an assassin’s bullet killed King in April 1968 in Memphis. She was a senior at Withrow High School. Her past met her present that day.
“We cried first; then I was in shock; we talked, then fear set in, fear that it could be anybody; then something else rose up in me, that I couldn’t stop fighting for justice,” Alexander said of her reaction to news of King’s death. “I thought of all that at the dedication, the day he was killed. I was caught between emotions: I couldn’t believe [the memorial] had been built. Then I said, ‘Yes, dreams can become reality.’”
Today is the 26th anniversary of the first observation of the federal holiday honoring King, the Baptist minister from a Montgomery, Alabama, church and leader of the modern civil rights movement to end legal discrimination against African-Americans. It’s the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day since the King monument dedication – an event still relevant and immediate in the minds of a sampling of Greater Cincinnatians who were there that day on the National Mall.
A sense of peace and harmony filled the air, they said. Races and generations blended, just like the America that King envisioned.
President Obama, who credited King and other civil rights leaders for paving his way to the White House, dedicated the memorial. Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin sang. About 50,000 people attended the dedication of the 30-foot-tall statue of King and the granite walls in which 14 of his quotations are carved.
Months later, the highlighted King quote that sticks in the mind of young Ennis Tait is this one: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
He rode a bus with members of the Avondale congregation of the Church of the Living God, of which his father, also named Ennis Tait, is pastor.
“It made me feel grateful for the things I didn’t have to go through,” the son said.
Young people were not forgotten.
Alexander went, in part, so she could bring her experience, photographs, and souvenirs back to share with students. She teaches fifth grade at Midway School in Westwood. She made the memorial dedication a class project. On Friday, using King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech as the framework, Alexander had her students give oral presentations on their dreams. She will use them in a documentary she is preparing about her trip to Washington.
“I want to know what their contribution will be and what they can do,” Alexander said. “They’ve come to understand that the dreamer can’t accomplish their dreams by themselves.”
She is applying the lesson she’s teaching to her own life.
“I was there that day thinking about how this man [King], this human being, lived a life of service to others,” Alexander said. “It made me question myself: ‘What is it I can do to provide more service?’”
Service is one of the specific themes of the King holiday. Martin Luther King Day of Service, the federal legislation challenging Americans to turn the holiday into a day of citizen action, was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994.
Michael Little, 46, of Fairfield Township, lives a life of service. He worked previously as prison chaplain at Lebanon Correctional Institution. Now he is a chemical dependency counselor at Talbert House. He heard about the rescheduled October 16 dedication on the radio. Organizers postponed the initial dedication ceremony, scheduled for August 28, because of Hurricane Irene. It swept through the nation’s capital that weekend with high winds and rain.
“I wanted to be able to come back and talk to men in my [treatment] groups about it,” Little said.
His message: “It was good to see a large African-American community present. It was good to see people of other races there. I expected to see protests and violence. There were none. Not everyone accepted [King’s] view of things or methods when he was alive, and they don’t now.”
He had driven to the Million Man March, also held on October 16, in 1995, and to Obama’s inauguration in 2009. He rode one of two buses that left from Swifton Commons Mall in Bond Hill to the King dedication.
He bought T-shirts at the dedication for himself and family members. He purchased two copies – one in color and the other black-and-white – of a photoshopped image of King and Obama sitting in conversation at a table. One hangs on a wall of his home; the other rests on his fireplace mantle.
The King memorial dedication and Obama’s inauguration – like the men themselves –are linked in the minds of some African-Americans.
Like Little, Josephine Hardy, 51, of Colerain Township, attended both events. She rode buses both times and felt connected to events during the civil rights movement, primarily the 1963 March on Washington at which King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Thousands of African-Americans rode buses from across the country that August.
“Both times, I wanted to see history being made and to be a part of it,” she said. “It was an honor.”
She traveled with her older sister, Vanessa Haggard, 54, of Paddock Hills.
Hardy rattled off the names of the famous people she saw: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Cicely Tyson, Andrew Young, the president and the first family.
“It was so exciting when the president walked through the space in the monument,”
Hardy said. “We were in tears. We all shed tears of joy, tears of excitement, tears of awe.”
The monument to King, which opened to the public August 22 on the banks of the Tidal Basin, is the first major memorial on the National Mall for a non-U.S. president and for a person of color.
“I want to say we have arrived and that we have finally overcome,” Hardy said, “but I know we haven’t totally arrived.”
A machine operator, Hardy’s employer of 14 years, laid her off in September. She recently found work with another company.
The dedication weekend became a rallying point for the growing disparity in white and black incomes across the country, conditions reflected locally. U.S. Census Bureau estimates released in September show that the median household income for blacks in Greater Cincinnati in 2010 was $29,705 compared with $55,277 for whites (not including white Hispanics). Nationally, the median household income was $54,168 for whites and $33,578 for African-Americans.
Hardy came home inspired to stay positive.
“It was one of the best things, the most exciting things, to ever happen to me,” she said of the King memorial dedication. “It brought back all of the feelings of what it stands for to stand up for justice for all people. The weekend was about unity and peace. I want to believe in those possibilities.”
Efforts to create a national holiday on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Jan. 15, started soon after his assassination in April 1968.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King founded, presented Congress with 3 million signatures in 1971 seeking a King holiday. Another 6 million signatures were presented to Congress in 1980 by King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and singer Stevie Wonder. The holiday’s path to reality was steeped in partisan politics and racism.
President Ronald Reagan signed a bill into law in November 1983 to create Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The first official holiday was observed on the third Monday of January 1986.
At that time, only 27 states and the District of Columbia honored the holiday. Arizona and South Carolina were especially contentious. The NFL moved Super Bowl XXVII from Tempe, Arizona, to Pasadena, California – played in January 1993 – because of Arizona’s refusal to recognize the federal holiday. South Carolina became the last state to sign a bill creating Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday in 2000, the same year it pulled the Confederate flag down from the Capitol dome in Columbia.
On MLK Day, second Obama inauguration sign of progress
The race divide may be wider, but “we would not go backward”
January 19, 2013
To Mitchel Livingston, whose career in higher education reaches back to the 1960s and the height of the civil rights movement, Barack Obama’s re-election is more important than Obama’s election to a first term in 2008.
“With the ugliest voices in politics and billions of dollars working systematically against him, America – black, white, Hispanic, women – spoke clearly and said we would not go backward,” said Livingston, 68, of Cleves.
He is among the millions of African-Americans for whom this weekend will long be remembered.
Obama, though he will be formally and privately sworn in on Sunday, will take the oath of office in public on Monday. The ceremony at the U.S. Capitol will coincide with celebrations across the country of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
“I don’t look at this presidency as an end point; it’s a new beginning,” said Livingston, who will return to the University of Cincinnati in 2014 to help build a doctoral program in higher education administration. “There are forces at work that want to undo 30 years of civil rights legislation. This is a clarion call.”
Obama’s second term may indeed be a sign of continued progress for African-Americans, but the country can hardly be called color-blind. In fact, some surveys suggest the country has lost ground on the civil rights front – ironically, in just four years, since Obama first took office.
A majority of Americans now express prejudice toward African-Americans, even if they don’t recognize those attitudes, according to an Associated Press survey released in October 2012. Conducted with researchers from Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and University of Chicago, the survey showed that the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments increased to 56 percent in 2012, up from 49 percent in 2008, when measured by an implicit racial attitudes test.
The widening gap in household income between whites and African-Americans nationally is even wider in Greater Cincinnati. U.S. Census Bureau estimates released in September 2011 showed that median household income for blacks in 2010 was $29,705, compared to $55,277 for whites in 15 counties covering Southwest Ohio, Northern Kentucky, and southeast Indiana. That’s down 12.2 percent for blacks and 10.1 percent for whites since 1999.
The U.S. prison population comprises 40 percent African-American males, though they make up just 14 percent of the overall population. In Hamilton County, 70 percent of the jail population is black men, even though the overall black population – male and female – is 26 percent.
The number of hate groups – which includes neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, skinheads, black separatists, and others – has increased 69 percent since 2000 and now has reached 1,018 nationally, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization based in Montgomery, Alabama. Since the end of 2008, the number of anti-government groups, including armed militias, grew 755 percent, from 149 to 1,274 in 2011.
Obama’s election and re-election, say the law center’s staff, fuels the underlying anger and fear related to the country’s sluggish economy, increase in numbers of non-white immigrants from Central and South America and Africa, and the diminishing white majority.
“These attitudes don’t surprise me,” said Ericka King-Betts, 36, executive director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission. “With the economic downturn, a lot of people feel like their piece of the pie is shrinking.
“And they look at the ‘other’ and think that their piece is getting bigger. Without contact outside of their own communities, people sometimes fall back on negative stereotypes and experiences.”
Despite advances in workforce integration, Cincinnati remains one of the nation’s most racially segregated cities. Cincinnati ranked eighth in residential segregation of the nation’s 22 most racially divided cities, according to an analysis of 2010 census results by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. It reports that 66.9 percent of one racial group would have to move to other census tracts to integrate Cincinnati.
Does unity on King Day mask underlying division?
Yet even as many Americans remain separated by race in their neighborhoods and
churches, King holiday celebrations appear to be gaining in popularity and acceptance by whites.
For retired federal judge Nathaniel Jones, though, racial harmony on the holiday masks hardening racial attitudes, fervent attempts to turn back the clock on civil and voting rights, and attempts to weaken the federal government.
“We celebrate by performing community service, we attend the program, join hands, and sing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ yet some of these same legislators then vote against programs and initiatives that Dr. King supported,” said Jones, 86, general counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in New York from 1969 through 1979, when he appeared frequently before the U.S. Supreme Court to argue for school desegregation.
Another regional civil rights leader with national NAACP experience is John J. Johnson, executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, which has a regional office in Covington. To Johnson, 67, the convergence of Obama’s second inauguration and the King holiday is a sign of great progress over the past 50 years.
With 22 years of experience in the NAACP national office in Baltimore, where he worked for the King Federal Holiday Commission (which pushed for the legislation to create the holiday), Johnson is now most concerned about the racial climate in his home state. “We don’t want to see Kentucky become the breeding ground for social conservatism across the nation,” said Johnson, whose service to the NAACP started as president of the Franklin, Kentucky, chapter when he was 18 years old. “Those forces play to the worst fears in people.”
Education, faith, talk are ways to close gap
A positive response is to increase educational opportunities for black students, said Dannie Moore, associate dean and director for African-American Student Affairs at Northern Kentucky University. Black student enrollment has grown to about 8 percent of the total student population of 16,000 on the Highland Heights campus.
To Moore, progress of any kind most often brings a negative response, whether the
issue is Obama’s election and re-election, King’s effective anti-violence organization and leadership of the civil rights movement, or increases in educational attainment for blacks. “There is backlash to the progress, but backlash is not going to stop progress,” he said. “We have come so far.”
LeighAndria Young, 18, of Over-the-Rhine, is the first person in her family to attend college. A 2012 creative writing graduate of the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, she is a freshman communications major at the University of Cincinnati. For her, Monday’s celebration of Obama’s second inauguration and the King holiday reminds her of King’s lesson: that it would be whites and blacks working together to force progress.
“There has been this struggle and racial tension because he was president, and it was more evident when he ran the second time,” Young said. “The country came together and said that we trust him to lead us in a second term.”
Obama has been the lightning rod for more overt expressions of racism since he took office. Bumper stickers, cartoons, and protest posters portray Obama as a monkey or lion. He has been lynched in effigy.
“If a woman [Hillary Clinton] had been elected in 2008, we’d be talking now about
gender,” said Rodney Coates, professor of sociology and interim director of Black World Studies at Miami University, Oxford. The nation’s awkwardness around issues of race and its unwillingness to discuss it honestly – “A problem on both sides,” Coates said – make race an even more explosive topic when events such as having a black man in the White House bring it to the surface.
For Lesley E. Jones, founder and senior pastor of Truth and Destiny Ministries, Mount Airy, the negative racial attitudes and tension are obvious in American society. An antidote to the poison might be to pause and reflect, she said, on the country’s blessings.
“This America; it belongs to all of us,” she said. “This is not Republican America or Democrat America. In spite of our challenges, this is the greatest country on earth. Dr. King worked for all of America. That is what I hope we try to remember Monday.”
Getting to know the “militant” King
January 19, 2016
Much of Cincinnati’s commemoration of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday has become tradition: A march from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center to Fountain Square, where an interfaith prayer is said, with participants then continuing on to Cincinnati Music Hall for a program featuring an address by the city’s mayor.
So it was Monday, when several hundred people bundled up against single-digit temperatures to pay homage to the slain civil rights leader and the movement that popular culture recalls him as almost single-handedly creating and leading.
The civil rights group Black Lives Matter Cincinnati sponsored a new event this year, an educational forum at the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County. “MLK Day: Dream But Stay Woke” attempted to give fuller dimension to King’s life and work. It focused especially on his evolving positions on militarism and economic justice, otherwise known as the “Militant King” – and connected King and the movement’s other leaders to the ongoing struggle for racial justice today.
“For me, to participate in the march and to see so much of his legacy co-opted and whitewashed is frustration,” said Ashley Harrington, 24, one of three members of the Black Lives Matter steering committee. “There were no references to Tamir Rice or Sandra Bland and economic exploitation in this country.”
Rice, 12, was shot and killed by police outside a Cleveland recreation center in November 2014. Bland, 28, was found hanged in July in her jail cell in Waller County, Texas, after her arrest on a minor traffic violation. Actually, Black Lives Matter members – carrying signs bearing Rice’s, Bland’s, and Samuel DuBose’s names – did chant on the march from the Freedom Center to the library.
“Justice for Tamir!” It led to the rallying cry, “Back up, back up, we want freedom, freedom, racist cops, we don’t need ’em, need ’em.”
About 90 people – half of them white – attended the three-hour program at the library’s main branch downtown. Event organizers did reference the $4.85 million settlement announced earlier Monday by the University of Cincinnati with the family of DuBose, shot and killed July 19 in Mount Auburn following a traffic stop by former university police officer Ray Tensing.
The King Day event was indicative of the Black Lives Matter’s approach to building a focused and sustainable movement. With meticulous footnoting and citation, the forum’s two formal presentations focused on King’s texts – among them “All Labor Has Dignity,” “Beyond Vietnam / A Time to Break the Silence,” and “Where Do We Go from Here?” – and featured video of speech snippets. The entire presentation was available to audience members on their electronic devices via peardeck.com.
Those writings and speeches show how King “made the connection between poor black folks and poor white folks,” Harrington said during her presentation. A series of recent books, including a collection of his labor speeches titled “All Labor Has Dignity” (2011) and “The Radical King” (2015) by Cornel West, give full treatment to King’s late texts and reveal him to be as radical as Malcolm X and a democratic socialist who sided with the poor and working people.
“What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?” King said in April 1967, just a year before his death, at Riverside Church in New York.
The program’s second half, led by another of Black Lives Matter’s steering committee members, Brian Taylor, 41, looked at King’s role as one of the leaders of the movement – not its sole leader.
“It had tons of people – [gays], women, and him,” Taylor said of King. “People might say, ‘You’re dissing King.’ No, we’re trying to explain how someone becomes a leader. King had gifts, but he was an ordinary man – just like the people in this room – who was swept into an extraordinary situation.”
In great detail, Taylor then told the story of E. D. Nixon, who led the Montgomery, Alabama, NAACP and Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters organizations. Nixon’s work to end discriminatory seating practices on Montgomery’s municipal buses predated Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man, which sparked a movement.
Taylor emphasized that the movement of black liberation comes first, and out of that movement leaders emerge. He said King’s speeches on labor, living wages, and economic justice expanded well beyond the black struggle of the 1960s and apply today to movements such as the $15 minimum wage, police brutality, organized labor, immigration reform, universal health care, and women’s reproductive rights.
In fact, audience members reflected Black Lives Matter’s inclusive nature. Audience members participating in the public forum included people who self-identified as members of the Public Allies community service and leadership program as well as groups advocating for the GLBT, immigrant, and homeless communities.
“We want you to be involved in the immigrant rights movement and the women’s rights movements,” Taylor said. “It makes you stronger.”
Philip Argyres, white and a University of Cincinnati physics professor, is a member. Asked what motivated him to join, he said, “the news.”