Civil rights activists reflect on MLK Jr., Obama legacies


Published: Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 7:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 7:27 p.m.

CHICAGO A half-century ago, when African Americans were denied the right to vote, sat at the back of the bus, drank from "colored only" water fountains and sent their children to substandard, segregated schools, brave Americans dreamed of a better nation. They were beaten and water-hosed and thrown into jail. Many were killed. On the national holiday honoring perhaps the biggest dreamer of all, Martin Luther King Jr., and the eve of the swearing in of the first African American president, civil rights activists who put their lives on the line for justice reflect on the past and offer their vision for the future.

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CHRISTINE KING FARRIS, 81

There is no one alive, perhaps, who knew Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. better than his big sister. And if King were here to see the first black president ascend to office, he would be overcome with pride, she said. Still, he would also be cautious.

"He would say that we have reached a great milestone but we still have other milestones to reach. But this is a great beginning," said Farris.

Farris spent much of her life overshadowed by the achievements of her brother, but she also did her part to improve the future for African-Americans by dedicating her life to teaching. She remains on the faculty of Atlanta's Spelman College, a school founded to educate African-American women. She lost much to the civil rights struggle, including her brother to assassination in 1968. Six years later, their mother was shot to death as she played the organ during Sunday services at Ebenezer Baptist Church by a young man who declared all Christians as his enemies. Still, Farris never lost faith.

"Nothing will bring me to come to terms with my brother's death," Farris said, "but I am realizing that because of what he did, it is possible that we now have Mr. Obama as president. There were many who sacrificed and gave their lives during the movement, many unnamed. All of that was tragic, but it was a step toward leading us to where we are today."

Just as King carried the weight of bringing change to America more than four decades ago, Obama is charged with making America better, she said. But like King, he cannot do it alone.

"The next step is for us to support him," she said. "We must continue to lift up the idea that those of us who are citizens in the minority do have a place at the table."

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ANDREW YOUNG, 76

Two years ago, Ambassador Andrew Young said he believed Barack Obama was too young to be president and that he did not have an adequate support network. He now admits he was mistaken.

"It is something I have come to understand," said Young, as he prepared to leave for Washington to attend Obama's inauguration. "I don't doubt there is no better person in the United States of America nor has there been a better person with better credentials in my lifetime to take on these tasks. It was as though God created him for this moment."

He blames the error in judgment on scars from the past that included witnessing the assassination of his close friend, Martin Luther King Jr., and facing death threats of his own because he dedicated his life to fighting for racial equality. He remembers Mayor Richard J. Daley's order to police when King was slain in 1968: "Shoot to kill any arsonist ... and shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting."

"As an old minister once said, 'You and your generation have nothing to be apologetic for, but you are still bearing the scars of Egypt, and you might not be able to see clearly into the Promised Land.' And I agree," said Young, who later became mayor of Atlanta and ambassador to the United Nations. "I still see white folks scheming and conniving. When I saw (Obama) coming out with the support of (Mayor Richard M.) Daley and I happen to like Brother Daley but I don't see him, I see his father my image of Chicago is still the Daley machine."

Young said he has come to see Obama as a man very similar to King. "He has never said 'yes I can,'" Young said. "He has said 'yes we can.'"

"There are many respects in which this is a fulfillment of part of Martin's dream in that he said we must elect people of good will and vision to lead us into the future," said Young. "But at the same time, it's not unlike the world in which Martin began his leadership. He was thrown in as a very young man, with all the confusion and chaos of 200 years of racism and bigotry all of a sudden on his shoulders. I lived with him through that, and it was a very heavy burden.

"So my celebration of this inauguration is a prayerful one because the world is a mess. It is the best of times and the worst of times."

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JUANITA ABERNATHY, 77

The 1960s were particularly tumultuous for Juanita Abernathy. She endured daily phone threats from the Ku Klux Klan and a house bombing that sent her and her young child fleeing into the night.

Still, she marched, unfazed and unafraid, on the front lines of the movement that her husband, Martin Luther King's close confidant and adviser, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, helped to build.

"Our movement really transformed this whole country. We laid the foundation by hitting the streets and bringing attention all over the world to injustices in America, and that is what gave rise to the aspirations of Barack Obama to become president," said Abernathy, who lives in Atlanta. "That is why I say Barack is standing on my shoulders."

Nearly 46 years ago, she stood with her husband in the shadow of the Capitol and listened to King's "I Have a Dream" speech during the historic March on Washington. Even then, they knew that one day a black man would be president. Her only regret is that her husband, who died in 1990, will not stand with her Tuesday when Obama is sworn in.

"We all predicted that this would happen one day," she said. "But Barack's election is not the utopia we dreamed about. We are still in the process of getting there. We are better off than we were 50 years ago, but there is still discrimination and segregation in America."

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SISTER ROBERTA SCHMIDT, 80

It was unusual to see a group of white nuns from the Midwest, dressed in their traditional habits, marching on the frontline during the violent days of the voting rights campaign in Selma, Ala. But Sister Roberta Schmidt heard Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s plea for help and without hesitation, she heeded the call.

"It was after Bloody Sunday, and he sent out word that it was time for churches to become visible, to give witness to our African-American brothers and sisters who were denied the right to vote," said Schmidt, then a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Louis. "We had all seen the terrible atrocities that took place on television, so we flew there on Wednesday."

Before Bloody Sunday, when more than 600 marchers were attacked by mounted police with billy clubs and tear gas as they attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, many church leaders had been reluctant to join the movement, opting instead to stay home and pray. Schmidt was among the first group of people from all faiths and backgrounds to show up in Selma for a march to the courthouse before they were stopped by police. The bravery of Schmidt and the nuns, including one African-American, is told in the Alabama Public Television documentary, "Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change."

"We traveled there that day to say, 'We care about you and we are in this together,'" said Schmidt, a retired educator now living in Venice, Fla. "I want to be positive and say that I think that caring spirit still exists and that with Mr. Obama taking the oath of office, it will be renewed. But most Americans, and I put myself in that category, have slipped into such a comfortable life that we are complacent. But there are still people who are hungry. But I do believe the excitement over the president-elect will call attention to humankind."

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JESSE JACKSON SR., 67

Almost 25 years before America was ready to elect an African American president, Rev. Jesse Jackson forced the nation to consider the idea. Only the second African-American to run for president, Jackson in his 1984 campaign helped bring hope to many black Americans. Young children ran behind his motorcade as it made its way through communities that had never glimpsed a presidential candidate, much less a black one. He ran again in 1988.

"I was just a link in the chain that led to this moment," said Jackson of President-elect Barack Obama's victory. "Barack came in and ran the last lap of a great race."

Jackson called Obama's inauguration one of the great fulfilling moments of American history. Though he publicly supported Obama from the beginning, he made private comments along the way that brought his sincerity into question. He later apologized, and on Election Night, as the president-elect walked on to the stage at Grant Park stage, Jackson wept.

"I was caught up in the joy of the moment," said Jackson, who founded his own civil rights group, the Chicago-based Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. "It was also about the journey. In that same park, people were tear gassed during the (Democratic National) Convention of 1968. To get to where we were that night, people need to appreciate what made that night possible. From 1954 to here, along the road there were martyrs, marchers and lawsuits won. It was the people in Selma who were too old and too poor to make it to that circle."

The challenge that lies ahead for Obama is awesome, Jackson said. And just as blacks, whites, Jews and Christians came together to fight for justice in the 1960s, Obama will need the embrace of activists to fulfill his mission.

"Nov. 4 was the big engagement party, Jan. 20 will be the wedding and Jan. 21 is when the marriage begins," Jackson said. "And it begins in very stormy conditions with an economic crisis, wars . . . and some of the same people who supported President Barack in November are the first to challenge his stimulus appeal two months later."

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BOBBY SIMMONS, 62

During the successful march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, 18-year-old Bobby Simmons became known for a simple deed. He wrote VOTE across his forehead with sunscreen. A photographer snapped his picture and the photograph became a symbol of the voting rights campaign.

That was one of many protests that Simmons was involved in as a young man, including Bloody Sunday. Students were the backbone of the movement and there was a price to pay for their activism.

"There are times I have felt disheartened after what we went through, losing our jobs, losing our houses and not having a place to stay and having all of our work taken for granted," said Simmons, who lost his janitorial job but later got a better one as a factory worker. "But if I had to do it all over again, I would."

He will not be in Washington for the inauguration, an event he called the "dream of a lifetime." But he plans to watch every minute of it from his home in Selma.

"It's like a kid dreaming every night about getting a new bike and finally, he gets a new bike," said Simmons, 62.

"But I understand what it took to get here. It took a lot of sacrifice and getting abused, things you would not dream could happen in America. The Constitution did not mean anything. It was the white man's law and a black man's law was to do what he said."

The country has not gotten completely over the hurdle, Simmons said, and Obama will face a lot of obstacles.

"Even though he has the reins of the presidency, we will have to sacrifice. He can't please everybody and some people, including blacks, are not going to be happy. But if we come together, and we already have the resources, we can provide whatever we need for ourselves."

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