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Sunday, August 25, 2013
Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington. It is one of the greatest speeches ever given. Certainly, the speech is a checklist on whether or not America has lived up to or is living up to its creed of “liberty and justice for all.”
If a report card could be given 50 years later, what would it look like? Specifically, what would that report card look like in regard to King’s dream in Roanoke?
Few know that King casts a large shadow over the city. One little known fact is King’s role in integrating downtown Roanoke. In 1963, King was scheduled to speak in Danville as a result of “Bloody Monday,” the infamous day when civil rights workers were brutally beaten by police. King was then scheduled to speak in Lynchburg.
King was asked to speak in Roanoke between those two stops. Roanoke’s power structure did not want him coming to Roanoke “causing trouble.” The power structure put together a biracial commission to look at integrating the city, which in turn came up with the plan to integrate downtown Roanoke. This negated the need for King to come to Roanoke. Still, integration, though limited, was achieved.
When asked by The Roanoke Times to write this piece, I could not help but think about the editorial the paper wrote after King’s assassination. The Times basically wrote that King got what he deserved. Being a Southern newspaper, these types of editorials after King’s assassination were the norm. At the time of his assassination, he was, without a doubt, the most hated man in America. Now he is revered.
I also could not help but think about the controversy over the Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial Bridge. The project, which began as simply renaming Orange Avenue after King, took almost 10 years to complete. When Perneller Chubb-Wilson, founder of the Roanoke Southern Christian Leadership Conference, asked me to help her bring a proper memorial to Roanoke, my response was, “You know these folks are not going to let that happen.” Still, I agreed to help. With the exception of Rep. Bob Goodlatte, no public or elected official, black or white, would touch the project with a 10-foot pole.
Wilson and I were offered a king’s ransom to drop the project. To this day, we laugh at the amount of money and other things we turned down. Then the two of us had to endure the type of racism and racial hatred people did not think was possible in Roanoke in the 1990s. After one public hearing on the matter, Wilson and I needed a police escort to our cars for our safety. In spite of the turmoil, the MLK Bridge is now a proud part of the Roanoke community, proudly displayed on the city’s website and in other Roanoke literature. It is also a meeting place for those interested in promoting King’s dream.
Without question, life has improved in most areas in the 50 years since King’s speech. Roanoke’s most beloved political figure is its first black mayor, Noel C. Taylor. Roanoke’s black community is no longer an afterthought. This change began under former Roanoke City Manager Darlene Burcham. Under the leadership of City Manager Chris Morrill, the relationship between city government and Roanoke’s black community has never been better.
Police community relations have vastly improved under the leadership of Roanoke Police Chief Chris Perkins. Other Roanoke police chiefs have talked a good game when it came to community relations. Perkins talks the talk and walks the walk. This is best illustrated by his community outreach efforts and the recent implementation of the Drug Market Initiative.
Fifty years ago, the Roanoke City Public Schools system was segregated. Since school integration, there have been two black school superintendents. Racist incidents by teachers and students, which caused me to remove my youngest child from RCPS several years ago, have largely become a thing of the past. Under the leadership of Rita Bishop, educational opportunities in the RCPS abound. As one Hurt Park parent told me, “If these kids cannot graduate from school with everything that is offered to them, then they [the kids] do not want to graduate.”
Students who are behind in their school work can attend the Forest Park Academy to get caught up and graduate. Roanoke’s best-kept secret, the Noel C. Taylor Learning Academy, has revolutionized alternative education to the point where it is a model for alternative education programs state and nationwide. In fact, some Roanoke parents would rather send their children to NCTLA than either of the two local high schools due to its dedicated administration and staff. All graduates of RCPS can get a free two-year college education at Virginia Western Community College. These opportunities did not exist 50 years ago.
Still, Roanoke has a ways to go to achieve King’s dream in its entirety. Roanoke has a problem with the proliferation of gangs and gang activity. Too many young people are choosing to live the thug life instead of getting an education. Too many adults are AWOL when it comes to making sure our children take advantage of the educational opportunities afforded them. Our neighborhoods are still largely segregated. Access to capital and economic development is either limited or lacking in certain parts of the city. Too many of our young people are leaving the city to find better jobs and economic opportunities in other communities. Roanoke’s conservative talk radio is full of hate speech, which attempts to distort King’s message for ratings, political gain and economic gain. The jury is still out on how the Republican Party’s racist attempt to limit the voting rights of people of color will affect Roanoke’s future political landscape.
I was 6 years old when Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.” In the 50 years since, I have seen things I hoped I would see one day, such as civil rights and voting rights. I have seen things I thought I would never see, such as the election of a black president of the United States. I have seen things I hoped I would never see again, such as racism and discrimination on a daily basis.
I would give Roanoke a grade of “B” on its report card on the 50 years since King’s famous speech. The question is, will that grade improve to an “A” or slip to a “C?” Time will tell.
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