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August 26, 2013

Local community members to honor King Tuesday night

By Denise Richardson Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — The 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream”  speech is a time not only to reflect on progress but also to rekindle work to end continuing injustices, local civil rights advocates and historians said.

“We’ve come a long way,” Joyce Miller, chairwoman of the city’s Community Relations and Human Rights Commission, said. “But we still have a long way to go.”

On Aug. 28, 1963, King delivered his speech to about 250,000 people who participated in the march for jobs and justice March in Washington, D.C.

“It was one of the most invigorating movements that captured the imaginations of African Americans,” said Harry Bradshaw Matthews, director the U.S. Pluralism Center at Hartwick College in Oneonta.

The march toward justice and equality is unfinished, local advocates and historians agreed recently, and efforts have faced some setbacks. Racial profiling, tensions between police and minorities, bullying and identification requirements at some polling sites are among the results of racism and civil rights abuses today, they said.

In Washington, D.C. marches this past Saturday and this Wednesday are raising awareness of the anniversary.

In Oneonta, a march is set for Tuesday night, to be followed by an interfaith service and a recitation of King’s speech. On Wednesday, the State University College at Oneonta has activities planned throughout the day.

At the “Let Freedom Ring” ceremony in Washington on Wednesday, President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, will speak. Bells will ring nationwide at 3 p.m. to note the time when King delivered his speech.

The 1963 march on Washington pressured Congress to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, bills that were approved in 1964 and 1965, respectively. The laws followed the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown versus Board of Education ruling in 1956 that called for racial desegregation.

Matthews, who was in elementary school in the 1960s, said he didn’t understand the dynamics of the court decisions and movement at the time but recognizes the benefits he had as a “civil rights child.” The anniversary is an opportunity for black parents to teach children about King’s legacy and how the struggle for equality continues, he said.

“It’s not over,” he said. 

At Hartwick’s Pluralism Center, Matthews has prepared a display on the civil rights movement and historic black figures. The exhibit in Bresee Hall on campus includes magazines, documents, statues and other memorabilia.

William Simons, SUNY Oneonta history professor and chapter president of United University Professions, joined UUP members and New York State United Teachers members on a bus that went from Vestal to Washington, D.C., for the march on Saturday.

The trip and the march were an opportunity to “dip into the inspiration” of the civil rights movement, Simons said, and the union members shared stories from the past and hopes for the future.

“There was a good deal of adrenaline and anticipation,” Simons said Sunday. 

The crowd shared a sense of history, mission and community, he said, and listened to many speakers through the heat of the afternoon.

“Our energy levels stayed high,” he said.

The nation today has its first black president, among many other advances that couldn’t have been imagined 50 years ago, Simons said.

“There was a sense we have come a long way,” Simons said. “Great progress has been made, but more remains to be done. “

Simons, who was 13 the year of the King speech, said the 1963 march raised his awareness of racial issues, including the crisis over busing for desegregation in Boston, his hometown.

Robert Compton, a professor in the political science at Africana and Latino Studies departments at SUNY Oneonta, said the anniversary is important as an opportunity to reflect on achievements that developed during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and on King’s legacy of social justice and racial inclusion.

But work to fulfill the dream remains.

“We have a long way to go. … Many people think we are in a post-racial society,” he said. But changes in voting laws, legislative redistricting and other legacies of segregation linger and have thwarted progress, he said, and black and white communities remain separate, almost as if “two Americas” exist.

“Racism has become much more subtle and systemic,” he said.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively erased an anti-discrimination provision of the Voting Rights Act and raised the bar for consideration of race in university admissions. The fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, racial profiling and stop-and-frisk policies by police in New York City continue to be debated issues.

Miller said the city commission has been concerned about the lack of diversity in the public sector, such as the police and fire department, city staff and school districts. 

The question before the commission is “how can we help it be different?” she said.