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Happy Birthday, Dr. King -- we've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go!

By       Message Eugene Elander     Permalink
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I can still recall my family's first Winter Holiday auto trip to New Orleans from Dayton, Ohio, in the 1950s. I recall seeing, for the first time, racially-segregated bathrooms and drinking fountains and restaurants, not to mention a sign in a Southern hotel reading: JEWS AND DOGS UNWELCOME HERE.

But, I never expected to turn into a sort of teenage Rosa Parks, until we took the trolley on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and I saw a movable sign on top of a seat towards the back of the trolley reading: COLORED SECTION. When more Whites got on, they just moved the sign back a row or two, and the Negroes (the term used then, at least in polite company) got up and the Whites sat down. This at first puzzled me, being from New York originally; then I left my seat with my parents and sat down in the Colored Section, while they gestured for me to return. I got some stares and glares, until we got off the trolley; then I got a lecture to the effect that while my parents, both loyal Democrats who thought FDR had been pretty close to the Almighty, thought the New Orleans practice was wrong, still "when in Rome, do as the Romans do."  It seemed I would probably have made a very poor Roman, but I've never regretted the gesture, my very first act of defiance.

In the mid-1960s, I began to do some civil rights community organizing on the South Side of Chicago, traveling there from Ohio on weekends. I stayed in the basement of Rev. Jim Bevel's church, listening and learning from him, particularly his saying that: at some point we all have to decide whether we are against tyranny or just a particular bunch of tyrants.

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In the late 1960s, teaching in a new college near Atlantic City, New Jersey, I started a hotel/restaurant management program to train primarily minority students to attain decent jobs there (this was before the casinos, when some wages averaged under a dollar an hour.) Unfortunately for me, the crime syndicate which has always run Atlantic County and City disliked these efforts, and I was given the message to either move on or move into the Bay permanently.

So, like many others, I joined the War Against Poverty (in my case in Binghamton, New York) until we surrendered in that War and gave up. Still, it was a noble effort, and some programs such as Head Start and Legal Services are still with us today. But the issue of growing poverty here is also still with us. Neither major political party has made the reality that over a third of our population live beneath the poverty line a campaign issue recently.

I was never privileged to meet Dr. King, and one of my great regrets is that his historic I Have A Dream speech fell so near my birthday that I could not get down to Washington due to long-standing plans my family had made. Then, we were in Pittsburgh at a Passover Seder when the news of his tragic and horrid assassination came over the air. The next day, we joined a large inter-racial march there, while cops with machine guns and police dogs watched us warily.

Fast forwarding to the present, we have a Black President, all sorts of Civil Rights Laws, at least a semblance of integration, and now a new activism, the Occupy Movement, a non-violent grass roots thrust of which Dr. King would have approved. Yes, we've come a long way--but we surely have a long way to go.   Lest we forget, consider but one example: Had Troy Davis been Caucasian, or educated, or wealthy, he would never have been executed by the State of Georgia.

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Author's Biography Eugene Elander has been a progressive social and political activist for decades. As an author, he won the Young Poets Award at 16 from the Dayton Poets Guild for his poem, The Vision. He was chosen Poet Laureate of (more...)
 

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