Honoring MLK's dream
By Emily Ford
Judge Cheri Beasley urged people at a celebration Sunday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to confront racial issues head-on, including what she called a new movement to resegregate some public schools.
“We’ve got to be concerned about education,” said Beasley, an associate judge on the N.C. Court of Appeals and the only African-American woman elected to statewide office without being an incumbent. “There is a movement afoot in this state to resegregate the schools.”
Beasley spoke during the 34th annual King birthday celebration at Mount Zion Baptist Church.
Also at the event, Anthony Johnson, the technology facilitator at Overton Elementary, won the 2011 Humanitarian Service Award for establishing a drumline for disadvantaged children.
School systems in Mecklenburg and Wake counties are moving toward neighborhood schools, Beasley said, which would result in segregation.
If schools are made up of only African-American students, Beasley said she’s concerned that “resources will freeze” for those schools.
“We have to have the audacity to ask the right questions,” she said.
Although she lives Raleigh, Beasley said she’s learned that some Rowan-Salisbury schools are not racially well balanced.
“I understand even in Rowan County there is some concern that there is an indication that white folks are abandoning the public schools here,” she said.
Although Rowan County is majority white, several schools in the system have enrollments with 60 percent or more minority students, she said.
“Many Rowan County schools never really desegregated in the first place,” she said.
After the ceremony, Beasley said her 10-year-old twin boys attend private school in Raleigh because of confusion about their address during a move. She intends to send them to public school in the future, she said.
Dr. Walter Hart, associate superintendent for the Rowan-Salisbury Schools, attended the ceremony as a dignitary. After Beasley’s speech, Hart said the issue of racial parity in schools is more complex than statistics on a page.
“We can address the assignment of students on paper, but in reality, you also have to deal with the human element,” he said.
No one wants their child to endure long school bus rides, he said. The 1985 merger of the Rowan County and Salisbury school systems created a challenge when assigning students to schools, Hart said.
“We can’t control where schools were built,” he said. “If we started over again, schools might be placed in more strategic locations.”
The school system has encountered resistance from parents at every high school regarding redistricting, he said.
“It’s easy to define and easy to label the problem but hard to solve it, particularly when allegiances to schools in this county are strong,” Hart said.
The Board of Education named North Rowan High School as a school of choice last year but has seen a “very limited” increase in enrollment, he said.
Beasley said King’s perspective and legacy are helpful when confronting education and a host of other issues. She urged the overflow crowd at Mount Zion to “always confront issues on the front end” by being proactive, not reactive, and said communities work best when all races are represented.
“We all need to all be at the table — all races at every table,” she said. “It makes a difference not just for minorities. We all benefit when everyone makes a contribution.”
African-Americans must educate themselves on the issues at hand and become a part of the conversation, she said.
“We must have the audacity to ask the questions and insure the laws of this land are applied fairly and equally,” Beasley said.
African-Americans must continue to support one another and work together, she said.
“We’ve got to be there for each other. We’ve got to feel that sense of commitment,” Beasley said. “And y’all, we’ve got to vote.”
She juxtaposed King’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail — one of his most passionate calls to action — with events in Rowan County in 1963.
Native son Bob Jones of Granite Quarry was chosen to organize the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina. The Klan held rallies up to seven times a week, which became the largest political gatherings in the state.
By 1965, North Carolina had the most active Klan in the country, Beasley said.
The Klan continued to march and rally in Rowan County into the 1990s. For several years, Mount Zion required police protection during the King birthday celebration due to threats of violence from the Klan, pastor Dr. Nilous Avery said.
“Those who seek to divide and hate no longer march,” Avery said. “Love is a powerful ingredient.”
Beasley, who was 2 when King was assassinated, said parents must “make sure our children know and understand the sacrifices” made by King and others who fought for civil rights.
Civil rights activists were incarcerated, their homes were bombed, and they were “beaten and hosed and killed and treated as if lives were worthless,” she said.
Often, perpetrators were never punished.
Despite the injustices, King and his followers never turned to violence, Beasley said.
“They only fought back with their presence, intelligence, discipline, faith and songs of freedom,” she said. “This kind of fight is really an audacity.”
In accepting the 2011 Humanitarian Service Award, Johnson of Overton said his drumline has grown from eight children to 50, including black and white students and both boys and girls. Johnson spent $4,000 of his own money to buy instruments.
The program included greetings from Hart, N.C. Rep. Harry Warren (R-Rowan), Salisbury Mayor Susan Kluttz, Livingstone College President Dr. Jimmy Jenkins, Catawba College Provost Dr. Richard Stephen and Carl Ford, chairman of Rowan County Board of Commissioners.
Breya Philpot, a sixth-grader at Sacred Heart Catholic School, read her winning essay about King.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.