We’ve changed for the better, but there’s still much left to do

  • Posted: Sunday, May 19, 2013 12:46 a.m.

“We knew change had to come, and we had to be the instruments of that change.”

— Linda Kelly

The world has changed a lot since Linda Kelly and a small group of others walked through the doors as Boyden High School’s first African American students. It has changed so much, in fact, that today’s young people cannot imagine the degree of separation that existed between the races during the 1950s and 1960s that Kelly described Thursday at a humanitarian awards ceremony. Now head of the Hartford Foundation in Connecticut, she grew up amid segregated schools, drug store counters, public bathrooms and doctors’ waiting rooms. She lived with the knowledge of that separation every day.

We’re better than that now, right?

Yes, we are “better,” in a sense. This is a different day. But the need to be instruments of change goes on.

The inequality Kelly and her peers strove to overcome 50 years ago was easier to see than today’s societal barriers. Racism and prejudice persist in subtler ways, while poverty stealthily grows. According to the Center on Poverty and Work Opportunity at the University of North Carolina School of Law, 18 percent of North Carolinians, some 1.7 million people, live below the federal poverty level. One in four of the state’s children live in poverty, including 40 percent of our children of color. The state ranks 12th highest in poverty in the nation, after being 26th just a decade ago.

Generational poverty is the fastest growing segment of the population. But poverty is more than numbers, as Gene Nichol, director of the Center on Poverty, says. “It’s a draining of the body, a wound to the soul,” he wrote in The News & Observer earlier this year. “Amid such plenty, it is willful marginalization, an infliction of demeaning indignity.”

The Elizabeth Duncan Koontz Humanitarian Awards dinner Thursday was a time of celebration. Sponsored by the Human Relations Council, the event was established in the name of one of Salisbury’s most accomplished women — a graduate of Livingstone College who rose to become president of a national teachers’ organization and even served in the Nixon Administration in Washington. Koontz’s belief in providing opportunities for all can be seen in the work of Kelly and the other honorees — Dr. Albert Aymer, president emeritus at Hood Theological Seminary; Mary Frances Edens, retired educator; Wilson Cherry, another local pioneer of integration; and the Hurley Family, former owners of the Post and still active philanthropists.

If Koontz were alive today, though, she might look at the silently rising tide of poverty and wonder why someone isn’t doing more about it.

Who are our instruments of change today, and which way are they taking us? Here’s one example: The N.C. legislature may expand the sales tax while cutting or eliminating the income tax. Many believe that will hurt the poor and middle class, who spend a greater percentage of their income on the goods and services to be taxed. That is not a fairer tax.

Those who are concerned about poverty must continue to work toward and agitate for expanding opportunities for people of all races and ethnic groups — opportunities to get a high-quality education, to exercise their rights as voters and citizens and to overcome circumstances that could hold them down and to earn their way to a better life. We must be mindful instruments of positive change.

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