Editorial: ‘We ask only for equal rights’

Published 10:25 pm Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Livingstone College students and faculty members gave plaintive speeches the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death 50 years ago today.

Some 750 of them marched somberly that morning from the historically black campus on Monroe Street to the county courthouse on North Main. People came out of stores to watch them go by.

“We are all Americans,” the Rev. Robert Clayton said. “We are not here to riot but to proclaim our belief in the ideals (of King). We will not throw bricks but we will throw ballots.”

Young George Miller, the student body president, addressed the spectators gathered to watch this bit of history.

“We don’t want your women,” Miller said. “We don’t want Salisbury. … We ask only for equal rights because white supremacy is killing America.”

The dark day of King’s death was followed by a period of volatility and uncertainty — fear on both sides of the race line.

When people observe Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday each year, they inevitably focus on his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963. It was the culminating moment of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

As we observe the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, the focus moves to words he spoke in 1968 as he spearheaded the Poor People’s Movement. He was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers who protested their low wages and unfair treatment, bearing signs saying, “I Am A Man.” Those in power seemed to believe they were something less.

Attitudes have improved in the intervening decades. So have the job opportunities and political power available to black citizens. But disadvantages of the past and subtle practices of today pull too many people down into an inescapable undertow. Disparities persist between whites and blacks in education, employment, wealth and incarceration.  The new Poor People’s Movement includes many participants here in Rowan County.

What do we make of this? What next? Three events today could provide answers as they focus on King’s legacy:

“MLK50,” a panel discussion on the significance of the anniversary, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. in Room 315, Hood Seminary, 1810 Lutheran Synod Drive.

NAACP service, 6 p.m. at Mount Zion Baptist Church, 1920 Shirley Ave.

“Chairman Jones: An Improbable Leader” documentary showing and panel discussion, 7 p.m. in Hood’s Aymer Center, sponsored by the Center for Faith and the Arts and Covenant Community Connection. .

The Livingstone student pleaded in 1968 for equal rights. Fifty years later, we still fall short in equal access to the levers of power, equal opportunity to succeed and equal respect.  We are all Americans, and we all have a long way to go to ensure true equality.