Decades after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched for change, much of his dream for America remains unrealized, the former president of the NAACP said Monday at a Charlotte prayer breakfast marking the national holiday honoring the late civil-rights leader.
Speaking to more than 1,100 people at the YMCA’s 21st annual event, Benjamin Jealous acknowledged that there is much in the United States circa 2015 that King “would find unfamiliar and would inspire pride in him.”
But, Jealous told the crowd at the Charlotte Convention Center, “there is much about our time that Dr. King would find too familiar and would inspire impatience in him.”
Jealous cited the under-education of children, most of them minorities, and the over-incarceration of young men, most of them black. He also singled out North Carolina because of recent laws enacted by the Republican-controlled legislature that, among other things, will require IDs to vote and cut early voting days.
“We have seen the ugly ghost of voter suppression come to life in a very forceful way,” Jealous said. He called the voting-law changes a game-rigging “strategy of people who fear they soon will be losers.”
Jealous, who turned 42 on Sunday, made boosting voter registration a focus during his five years leading the NAACP. When he was selected in 2008, he became the civil rights group’s youngest president ever. Also on his watch, the NAACP organized marches protesting the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
Haves and have-nots
At the Charlotte prayer breakfast, Jealous also highlighted economic inequality, an issue King was shifting to at the time of his murder in 1968 and one President Barack Obama is expected to address in Tuesday night’s State of the Union address.
The gulf between haves and have-nots has widened, Jealous said, and remains an affront to what he called America’s destiny to be “the most perfect example of the unity and dignity of the human family that the world has ever known.”
Though the number of African-Americans in the upper middle class has quadrupled since King’s time, Jealous said, the percentage of blacks in poverty has stayed the same.
Jealous called on his listeners to do what he did years ago: Draw up a list of the things that upset them about the country or the world, pick at least one that they want to act on – and then get to it.
That one thing could be “opening opportunities” for those who lack them now, he said, or working to help children who are not reading at their grade level.
He pointed to the example of Jotaka Eaddy, who was a 16-year-old worker at a McDonald’s in Johnsonville, S.C., when she decided to work to end the death penalty for juveniles.
Over the next 10 years, she built coalitions, including with pro-life groups, lobbied state legislatures and worked with the NAACP to lead grass-roots efforts.
Her work helped set the stage for the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2005 that capital punishment of those younger than 18 at the time of the crime was unconstitutional.
Offering the opening prayer Monday was the Rev. Rodney Sadler, who also mentioned issues that have sparked current-day civil rights marches, including police killings of unarmed black men. Sadler also took aim at the North Carolina legislature, supporting causes central to the “Moral Monday” marches in Raleigh that have challenged action by the General Assembly.
“Our state is repressing votes and denying health care and under-funding education,” Sadler, a professor of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary and a “Moral Monday” veteran, said in his prayer.
Also at the breakfast, the city of Charlotte’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Medallion Award was presented to Jermaine Nakia Lee for his work with PowerHouse Project, a local program that helps gay and bisexual men living with AIDS or who are at risk of contracting the disease.
Lee called on the audience, which included many church members, to “not allow our faith beliefs to interfere with our compassion” for those with AIDS. “Our black and brown children are quietly dying from this disease,” he said.
Co-hosting the breakfast with WCNC (Channel 36) anchor Sonja Gantt, was Mackenzie Lawrence, 17, a student at Phillip O. Berry Academy who won the McCrorey YMCA’s “We are the Dream” Service Excellence Award because of her academic achievements and considerable volunteer service in the community.
The proceeds of the prayer breakfast go to the McCrorey YMCA on Beatties Ford Road, founded in 1936. Later Monday, the Y hosted an MLK teen summit that featured Jealous speaking to about 300 teenagers. He urged them to commit to improving their community and to educating themselves about King and the role of young people in the civil rights movement by reading books and seeing the movie “Selma.”
At the breakfast, Jealous pointed out that King, as a child, learned to swim at a YMCA and that then-NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall stayed at a YMCA in Washington, D.C., while arguing the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case before the Supreme Court. The court used that 1954 case to order the desegregation of public schools, and in 1967, Marshall became a justice on the high court.