Work still needs to be done to achieve the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of more than 50 years ago, Valley clergy and activists say, as they view present-day upheaval in Washington and protests in American cities following violent police encounters with blacks.
That work, they note, entails putting people in office and holding them accountable to the black community, working for policy changes, involving youth in local discussions and addressing covert racism.
On the eve of MLK Day, here is what they’re saying.
The Rev. Michael Harrison of Union Baptist Church, 528 Union Baptist Ave., Youngstown, said what moved Dr. King into being one of the leaders of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s was the injustice, inequality and and a lack of opportunity available to black Americans.
Issues pushing people back onto the streets today are injustice, lack of opportunity and health care, as well as the pandemic, he argues.
“Protesters are out to make people take notice,” Harrison said. “It is not that the actions that took place in the 1960s failed, but we fell asleep, and the game changed. There is nothing wrong with peaceful protests. They make those in power aware of existing problems.”
Harrison said real change will take place only when those with grievances achieve positions of power and they are able to guide policy changes.
“Yes, we had a black president, but what could he do when during most of time he had those in the House and Senate actively working against him?” Harrison said.
Locally, in spite of African Americans holding top jobs in Youngstown City Hall, as CEO of the city schools and on the Youngstown Board of Education, these leaders are contending with forces working to make it difficult to achieve goals, Harrison said.
“The newspaper and television coverage of the Selma march heightened awareness of what was happening,” Harrison said. “Social media is having the same impact today, including the insurrection that occurred at the Capitol. It could be argued that President Trump’s second impeachment would not have happened if there was not so much exposure through social media.”
Harrison said the way forward today is, as it always has been, education.
“The problem we had was the focus of sending young people to four-year colleges,” he said. “They should make two- and four-year colleges more available. However, there should be other options, including increasing the availability of trade school programs.
“There are some young people where learning how to be an electrician, a welder, a plumber or other skilled trades would be better,” he said. “They can earn living wages in shorter periods of time.”
Lea Dotson is one of the founders of IVote Black, a political organization formed in Warren in 2020 that focuses on making sure political leaders and organizations work on issues affecting black communities and their progress.
“We’ve come a long way since since the days of Martin Luther King, but we still have a ways to go,” Dotson said. “Systemic racism still exists and is affecting black and brown communities across the nation. There are still glaring disparities in education, jobs, finance opportunities, ability to purchase homes and incomes between communities.”
Dotson said instead of focusing on King’s early flowery speeches about dreams, more attention should be paid to writings, such as his “Beyond Vietnam” and “Letter From The Birmingham Jail.”
“What has happened, it became taboo to overtly express racist ideas, so people became more covert in expressing their opinions,” she said. “Racism never really left.”
Members of IVote Black argue there is no time to placate the sensibility of political leaders.
“We are unapologetic and up front that they must deliver to the black community,” she said. “We are not beholding to either the Democratic or the Republican parties. Those who want our support have to deliver.”
Dotson emphasized President-elect Joe Biden would not have won November’s election without black voters and the two Georgia Senate seats would not have been won by the Democrats without black voters. Locally, Dotson suggested the lack of enthusiasm of black voters may have cost longtime Democrats, such as Dan Polivka, Sean O’Brien and Gil Blair, their seats.
“It is not enough putting people in offices,” Dotson said. “We are paying attention to what they do and holding their feet to the fire.”
MORE PROGRESS NEEDED
The Rev. Todd Johnson, 37, senior pastor at Second Baptist Church in Warren, described the Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protests that occurred over the last year as indicators the nation has not progressed as far as many would like to think.
“We are protesting many of the same things our grandparents were protesting in the 1950s and the 1960s,” Johnson said. “I have notes from church meetings that took place in the 1960s in which they were discussing the use of police dogs. We’re talking about issues of police use of force and brutality.”
Johnson described the insurrection in Washington D.C. , as well as other events, as examples of white backlash, in which people who believe giving rights to others is somehow are robbing them of their rights.
“I am proud to be a pastor of a church that has a legacy of involvement,” Johnson said. “We still have a lot of work to do. We cannot call for unity without calling for accountability and change.”
Johnson emphasizes change will not occur without having a level of accountability.
“After all these years since Dr. King passed, we cannot rely on dreams and love, but for love and policy changes.”
Warren Mayor Doug Franklin said the city took a page out of the King playbook last year during the weeks after the unjustified deaths of George Floyd and other unarmed black men.
“We worked with those who wanted to voice their protests in a peaceful and protective manner,” Franklin said. “It was a real contrast to the riots that happened at the Capitol last week.”
Franklin emphasized all of King’s marches were designed to be peaceful and nonviolent, but had violence thrust upon them from agitators, law enforcement or government agents.
“We wanted to bring in the young people — who were at the forefront of the protest last year — because there was some legitimacy to their cause,” Franklin said. “We brought the young people in and engaged them in discussions. We worked with clergy, the police, our administration and others to establish a level of trust.”
Franklin emphasized his administration still is working to improve race relations by establishing stronger bonds with law enforcement through meetings and open discussions.
ENGAGE AND COOPERATE
“It is the youth of the city that are leading us into the future,” said the Rev. Joseph Boyd, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Youngstown. “Members of this church are very glad to show up and follow their lead to find ways to end racism.”
Boyd noted a significant change in awareness of, and actions on, social justice ideas in the four years he has been in the area.
“There is a greater sense of cooperation and participation,” he said. “I think there is a greater willingness to engage and cooperate.”
DO NOT LET UP
Penny Wells, director of Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past, agreed with Franklin that many of King’s successes were built on his working behind the scenes with local ministers, governments and others.
“He always was negotiating and working with people,” she said. “That’s what we need today.”
Wells said many whites stood up and spoke out during the 1960s civil rights movement.
As one of the founders of Sojourn to the Past, Wells for many years has taken Mahoning Valley young people to meet with civil rights leaders, like the late Congressman John Lewis, and others.
In recent years, Sojourn to the Past students created anti-racism workshops that have been presented to local educators, including to Youngstown City Schools CEO Justin Jennings.
“Where do we go from here?” she said. “We do not let up. We have to continue to march and protest. We have had young people who went through our program and became social activists.”
“Marching is not enough,” she said. “When the two black men were killed in Columbus, we told our young people to write letters to the Columbus mayor and police chief.”
She said the organization is working to get Youngstown police to consider getting body cameras for all of its police officers.
Community Legal Aid’s Executive Director Steven McGarrity said he and his staff are celebrating the late civil rights leader’s life and legacy. Community Legal Aid provides attorney services to some of the area’s needy residents.
“We in the civil justice community tout Dr. King’s messages like they’re slogans emblazoned on our favorite coffee mugs. In fact, they are,” McGarrity said, noting each member of his staff has a mug paraphrasing King’s words about bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice.
“His (King’s) values are our values — those of equality, diversity, leadership, and justice.”
McGarrity said he is thankful that the events of the recent year have some of the issues Dr. King fought for being talked about openly.
“But we must get beyond words and, as individuals and a community, move to action to dismantle the systems that have long perpetuated inequity and justice,” McGarrity said. “We are the guardians of Dr. King’s legacy, and each of us must do our part in making sure his words don’t echo hollow in the ears of generations to come.”
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