Community leaders reflect on how far we have come


Published: Sunday, August 25, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 24, 2013 at 11:06 p.m.

Fifty years have passed since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech on Aug. 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of nearly 300,000 people.

King spoke of a day when his children would be able to play with white children, sons of former slaves would sit at the table with the sons of former slave owners, and black people would be judged by the content of their character and not their skin color.

King also said the architects of our republic wrote a Constitution and Declaration of Independence “signing a promissory note to all men” — blacks and whites alike — guaranteeing the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But, King said, America had defaulted on this promissory note “and gave the Negro people a bad check ... marked insufficient funds.”

King said he refused to believe the “Bank of Justice” was bankrupt, but 50 years later, has America made good on that promissory note?

His speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom put pressure on lawmakers to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Measurable progress has been made since then in knocking down barriers for blacks to achieve the economic and social equality King dreamed of: the integration of public schools and transportation, courtrooms and luncheon counters; social programs to eliminate poverty, help people achieve economic freedom, and create access and opportunity; and efforts to increase diversity in the boardroom and the breakroom.

Hundreds of black judges sit on the bench, teach in universities and patrol the streets. We have a black president and a black Supreme Court justice. Black men and women are in Congress and the U.S. Senate and sit on the boards of major corporations. Black Americans run armies and fly spaceships.

While many of those changes have been seismic and achieved at sometimes violent and catastrophic upheaval, some people say there still is a subtle undercurrent of racism in America that can influence and shape public policy.

Black Americans may no longer be “sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation,” to quote King, but many say they still are subject to racial profiling and “stop-and-frisk” policies, feel seared by the “flames of withering injustice” in cases such as the Trayvon Martin killing and cry foul over the Supreme Court's recent ruling on the Voting Rights Act.

The Gainesville Sun asked leaders in the community to assess how much progress we have made as a society in general, and locally. Here are their words.

Dekendrick Murray, Ronald E. McNair Scholar and president of the Black Student Union at the University of Florida: Murray, from Quincy, is a senior majoring in family, youth and community sciences, with an interest in the recruitment and retention of first-generation and low-income youths in higher education.

“I definitely think that we can't deny that we've made progress as a country, but [I] definitely still think we have a long way to go. We've integrated, we've been able to sit at the same table, attend the same universities with our Caucasian counterparts. But an underlying racism and prejudice still exists.

“As a country, we've started to progress toward actual equality. It takes the support of students who go into fields that influence policy, and continuing to push our next generation to live out the dream Dr. King had to sit together and completely love each other as the human beings that you are.

“Our goal as the Black Student Union is to create, cultivate and challenge. We want to create a community so students have homes to go to. We want to cultivate leaders so students learn [not only] their history, but the history of every other person. We want to challenge them to go out and create more leaders, as well as to continue standing on their beliefs and continue for advocacy.”

Stephan P. Mickle, judge, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida: Mickle, who attended a segregated high school in Gainesville, was one of the first undergraduates admitted to UF in 1962; the first black to graduate from UF in 1965; and the second black student to graduate from the UF College of Law in 1970. He became an Alachua County judge in 1979 and was appointed to the federal bench in 1998.

“We have a black president of the United States. I could never have conceived of that as a child. Fifty-sixty years later, we have it.

“A lot of young folk, black and white, don't have an appreciation for the way it was in the '40s, '50s and '60s, knowing what people faced, the changes that have been made. Some of those changes still are taking place. Here we are in 2013 dealing with Trayvon Martin and other issues that bring those matters back into focus.

“We still have to overcome race in America, even in 2013.

“You see more blacks in all professional schools, but the relative numbers may be down more than one would expect. Lawyers are one of those areas. When I became a judge in 1979, there were probably 15 other black judges in the state. Now there are several in each county.”

Susan Baird, Alachua County commmmissssioner: Baird, a single mother, was raised speaking Spanish and English in Ann Arbor, Mich. She has an MBA from the University of Michigan and is a successful real estate broker. She was elected to the District 4 County Commission seat in 2010.

“We've had many programs, at least for affirmative action. I don't know how necessary it is these days. Your job is to make sure there is equality, in the sense that everybody has the same opportunity, not that you have to have the numbers that match perfectly, but that all citizens have the same opportunity to apply for a position and get a job.

“I see so many other things we should be more intolerant of, the crime in the African-American sector … There is a huge number of deaths in the African-American community. That's where the damage is being created, along with other societal issues that go along with that.

“We can all live in peace. The dream is extremely possible, but it is up to us. We have free will. It depends on the choice we make.”

Sharon Wright Austin, Interim Director of AfAfrican-AmAmerican Studies Program, UF: Wright, who earned her doctorate in political science from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 1993, started teaching at UF as a visiting professor in 2001 and became tenured faculty in 2007. She and other professors spent years getting UF to approve an African-American Studies major, which will begin this fall.

“We have made significant progress, especially politically, with the election and re-election of our first black president. Although there are lot of racial tensions in our society, we can't deny the progress we've made in civil rights, business and politics, and education.

“It is unfortunate that much of the crime in urban cities takes place in minority communities, and police often have to question young men of color because they live in these communities. They are treated unfairly, but we need to address not only profiling, but black-on-black crime, which is way out of hand and which we don't talk about enough.

“We need to discover why it is we've elected a black president, which shows the progress we've made, but you [also] have a Trayvon Martin, who couldn't walk down his own street without being profiled and murdered.”

Yvonne Hinson-Rawls, Gainesville City Commmmissssion: A 1965 graduate of Lincoln High School, Hinson-Rawls received her master's degree in education from UF in 1973. The longtime educator was elected in 2012 to the Gainesville City Commission District 1 seat, which includes the predominantly black and low-income east-side neighborhood.

“Perhaps my generation had the greatest effect and benefit from it, because today's generation is struggling more than we did. When young people can't pass through any neighborhood of their choice without being suspected, profiled, shot and killed! Racial profiling has been increasing in the past decade.

“Even though I experienced segregation, and I experienced racism, I also had the opportunity to fight in the Civil Rights movement and to see the transition from segregation to integration. I got to see Martin Luther King's dream, to see the transition of black men and white men working together, collaborating together and sharing this country together.

“Now we are seeing a radical and dramatic shift. I think people like me can see it more vividly than the younger generation, who didn't see what we saw. I admire the Dream Defenders occupying Gov. [Rick] Scott's office demanding the rescinding of 'stand your ground' and ending racial profiling.”

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