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Rural America Explains Why the Nation Needs Martin Luther King Day

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Three days before Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 15, the Press Enterprise of Bloombsurg, Pa., published a letter-to-the-editor by Al Olszewski of Mount Carmel. The newspaper publishes one to four letters a day, and Olszewski frequently writes, e-mails, or calls in his opinions. This time he thought the world needed his opinion about Dr. King whom he called "a sanctimonious fraud who peddled a 'dream' that was only a fantasy even he didn't really believe in."

Four days later, the Press Enterprise, in its "30 Seconds" section, published the views of a woman from Berwick, 40 miles northeast of Mount Carmel. She said that King "left violence and trouble whatever city he preached in." Describing herself as an "old-timer," she said she "knew" the facts because "I was there in the '70s." Of course, since King, who had earned the Nobel Peace Prize for preaching nonviolence and racial equality, was murdered in 1968, this woman might either have been sniffing too much alfalfa or seeing ghosts.

"30 Seconds" is the 22,000-circulation newspaper's talk radio in print. Each day the rural northeast Pennsylvania newspaper publishes a half page to two full pages of reader e-mails and "call-ins," most of them anonymous, most of them from persons whose brain filters have failed. Favorite targets are teachers, college students, unions, and liberals-not unlike the editorial views of the newspaper's editor.

A Catawissa man sent an e-mail to tell the readers "your [sic] either an American or your [sic] an African." Spewing vitriol, he demanded that Blacks "choose, then reside in the Country [sic] of choice." He said he was "tired of blacks demanding special status"; he objected to why "the entire white race should be held hostage every time a black or hispanic [sic] cries prejudice." His solution was if Blacks "don't like it here go live in Africa where you may feel more at home." As to Dr. King, this letter-writer said the man was "a liar, traitor, affiliated with known communists, and done more to suppress the black population than to help them." Not content with racial slurs and lies, he called King a "puppet used by politicians and the communist party." He concluded "I dsy [sic] NO to MLK holida [sic]."

Another Catawissa reader sent an e-mail saying he "can't wait for Central to hire a teacher of Mexican decent [sic] so that the kids can get Cinco de Mayo off!" Diversity, he claimed, "has run amok in our local school districts."

Central is the Central Columbia School District, one of seven small districts in the rural Columbia and Montour counties. Central came into the news when Judy Wright, a highly-praised 62-year-old third grade teacher and one of only three Black teachers in two counties, complained that Central scheduled classes that day, and that there was no formal plans to honor Dr. King. Central's response was that it was forced to schedule classes because of "a scheduling conflict." That "scheduling conflict," as Wright pointed out, apparently didn't affect the two vacation days for Presidents' Day, nor the holiday the local schools observe for the first day of deer hunting season in November. The district also gives students off a full week during the annual Bloomsburg Fair.

The "30 Seconds" screechers were all over this one, directing their anger not just at King but Wright as well.

A man from Mifflinville said Wright is "just trying to stir up trouble," and suggested in bold capital letters that she "RETIRE! Most are tried of you pushing your agenda." Also anonymously, and with opinions suspiciously similar to the Mifflinville man, a Mifflinville woman, also anonymously, said "this community is tired of you pushing your agenda on all of your students. Enought [sic] is enough."

A man from Berwick wanted Wright to "just chill out," and claimed Jimmy Hoffa "was twice the man as Martin Luther King and we don't have a national holiday in Mr. Hoffa's memory."

A Lime Ridge woman, possibly unable to get past call screeners at talk radio, wanted Wright to "get off your high horse and get a life." She claimed, "Our students are tired of you shoving your personal agenda down their throats." The good citizens of the county, said this anonymous writer, also without any evidence, "are tired of hearing about slavery and Dr. King." She had an alternative educational plan: "Why don't you talk about the percent of blacks filling our prisons? Or the percentage of blacks being born out of wedlock, or the amount of blacks dropping out of school?"

A member of the extreme right-wing group, Patriot's Voice, apparently smelling blood in the water, asked the Central Columbia school directors to also boycott Black History Month. After about 15 minutes of discussion, the board by not bringing the issue to a vote refused to honor the request, with directors pointing out that the board will not tell teachers what or how to teach. Patriot's Voice members, however, have been elected to the boards of three of the area's districts.

Even the newspaper editor-who has frequently told readers they don't have the right to question how the newspaper plays a story, and believes the editors of the New York Times are "limousine liberals"-got into the debate. In a Sunday "roses and thorns" column, he gave Wright a thorn. "How does giving kids a Monday off from school honor" King, he asked. He suggested that "instead of criticizing Central Columbia," Wright should have "commended the district . . . for putting kids in a place where she could teach them about King." He didn't mention anything about Presidents' Day, hunting season, or the fair.

A few residents spoke on Wright's behalf, most praising her courage. Most of those who had attacked Wright or King did so under the veil of anonymity; those who praised Wright and King usually signed their names. Jennifer Ianiero Natow, a Central graduate and first grade teacher from Radnor, near Philadelphia, not only questioned Central's actions, but pointed out she believed "cultures and traditions are often overlooked and not celebrated due to the lack of diversity in the Bloomsburg area." Columbia and Montour counties, with about 83,000 residents, according to the 2000 census, are primarily White (about 97 percent), with less than one percent Afro-American. Jeannie Murray, parent of a Central Columbia student, said Wright is "an intelligent, classy and courageous woman [who] has taught many who could otherwise be condemned to a life of narrow-mindedness." I. Sue Jackson, professor emerita of social work at Bloomsburg University, while attacking the editor's "thorn" and letters of hatred, said the community "should encourage individuals to speak out on the issues in the face of adversity and in doing follow in [King's] footsteps." James and Carolyn Dalton, also Bloomsburg professors, praised both Wright and King for courage. King, said the Daltons, "is a hero not just for African Americans, but for all Americans, and especially for anyone who has ever been mistreated by the powerful." Honoring him, they said "could mean a day off to remember his legacy or a 'day on' (as Coretta Scott King advocated) to act on that legacy: caring for the downtrodden, fusing faith and action, speaking out against injustice. But it does not mean school or work as usual, with few reminders of his legacy."

Judy Wright, who says she felt "insulted and disrespected" by Central's administrative actions, also says she knew "the people were going to come out of the woodwork." Of the personal attacks against her, King, and Black History Month, she says "nothing has surprised me." Although "some of the teachers at Central don't get it," she says many, fearing possible administrative sanctions against them, praised her for speaking out. "A lot of them are scared," she says, but she knows her actions "awakened them" to see the problem.

February is Black History Month. The journey undertaken by Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Carter G. Woodson, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Harry Bellafonte, Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., and millions of others of all colors, races, and religions moved human rights and social justice a long way. As reflected by those who write or call "30 Seconds" there is still a long way to go.
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Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist and professor of journalism emeritus. His current books are Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution , America's Unpatriotic Acts: The Federal Government's Violation of (more...)

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