MLK event draws nearly 150 residents

Published 10:00 pm Tuesday, January 20, 2015

by Leah Justice

Almost 150 area residents attended the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration on Saturday, Jan. 17 to hear the words of Willie Ratchford, executive director of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee.

Ratchford spoke on brotherhood, forgiveness and diversity in Tryon, quoted Dr. King and took the audience through what it would be like to sit down at the dinner table today with Dr. King to see his reactions to how this country has changed since King’s assassination in 1968.

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“Would (Dr. King) compare America in 2015 to his America of the 50s and 60s, and how would he think America today measures up to the vision he had for our country in his “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963?” Ratchford asked.

Being men, Ratchford said his conversation with King would likely begin with sports.

Ratchford said he thinks King would be pleased to know that eight of the 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL were of African-American descent and black coaches on the professional level have led their teams to win the Super Bowl on more than one occasion.

He said he knows King would be especially pleased to know that in 2003 Mississippi State University, for the first time, hired an African-American to head its football team.

He also said King would be pleased to hear of the financial success of African-American athletes, the number of young blacks who have access to college because of sports and the way sports has become a pathway to the American dream for many.

“Of course, sports does have its downside,” Ratchford said, “and Dr. King would not be pleased to know the number of black college athletes who do not graduate from college and have no prospects of playing their sport professionally. He would be saddened to know that the black football coach hired by Mississippi State University was one of four or five blacks hired by Division I colleges to be head football coaches and that there are over 200 such positions.”

Ratchford continued, “He would feel anger when he hears about black professional athletes, with millions of dollars in salaries and endorsements, who do not give back to their communities or invest their millions wisely to look out for their families or their futures. It would occur to him that while much progress has been made, much still remains to be done. Maybe it is a ‘dream deferred.’”

On education, Ratchford said Dr. King would be pleased with the record number of African-Americans now attending college, but he would be upset to hear there are more black males incarcerated in our prison system than there are in college.

“He would be pleased to hear that during the 70s and the 80s public schools in America were integrated at historical levels,” Ratchford said. “However, he would be discouraged to know that courts, governments and communities across America are now making decisions which are causing a re-segregation of our public schools by race and social class.”

Ratchford continued, “He would be happy to hear that achievement scores by black students are going up and at the same time saddened to hear that there still exists a gap between students of color and their white counterparts. He would be encouraged to see that blacks can use education as an effective way to participate in the American dream and disappointed to see the number of black youngsters who do not take advantage of that opportunity. Maybe it is a ‘dream deferred.’”

On economic development, Ratchford said Dr. King would be encouraged to hear about the growing black middle class, that the numbers of black millionaires are at an historic high, and that black billionaires own professional sports franchises and multi-media enterprises.

But Dr. King would feel perplexed to know that despite African-Americans’ economic success, there are also economic flaws, Ratchford said.

The overall wealth of white American families is about eight times that of black American families, Ratchford said. While black home ownership is reaching record highs, he said, they still lag far behind whites who own homes. He added that the values of homes in white neighborhoods accelerate much more quickly and higher than homes in predominantly black neighborhoods.

On politics, Ratchford said he believes Dr. King would be pleased to hear about the political success of black Americans since 1968 with black mayors of cities, including in many southern states where King “fought the good fight.”

“He would not believe that in the United States Congress there exists the Black Political Caucus with representatives from Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas and Mississippi to name a few,” said Ratchford.

Ratchford said he would ask Dr. King to have a seat before he told him about President Barack Obama.

“Wouldn’t want him to faint and fall with this news,” Ratchford said. “As he steadies himself and regains his composure, I can see him welling with pride and tears in his eyes as he hears about America’s first black president.”

Ratchford said while he knows Dr. King would really enjoy the news about President Obama, he would be too embarrassed to share with him the disrespect that has been shown to Obama because of the color of his skin.

“Maybe it really is a ‘dream deferred,’” Ratchford said.

Ratchford said Dr. King would probably ask him, point blank, what the state of race relations is in America today.

“And I would reply honestly,” Ratchford said. “I would say to Dr. King that he would be happy to hear that while race relations in America have gotten better, we still have a long way to go. I would inform him that racism has taken on new tones in its sophistication, and that very often when acts of racial discrimination do occur, the victim has no idea that he or she has been victimized. That we call this ‘have a nice day racism’ or ‘racism with a smile and a pat on the back.’”

Ratchford said he would tell Dr. King we are still a country that judges some people negatively by the color of their skin even if the content of their character flies in the face of that characterization.

“I would tell him that race still polarizes us and we have major problems developing racial trust,” Ratchford said. “I would tell him that I find it disturbing, and I believe that he would too, that blacks and whites can’t even sit down face to face and have an honest discussion about race. That we think that if we are truthful with one another we might be perceived as being racist for speaking our hearts.”

Ratchford said he would tell Dr. King that blacks and whites seem to have an easy time integrating in the work place and in public settings, but at the end of the day each goes to their private homes in neighborhoods that do not foster integration.

“We do not visit each other at our homes and we don’t mix socially unless it’s some special occasion with open invitations to all,” Ratchford said. “Maybe it really is a dream deferred.”

Upon hearing this, Ratchford said, Dr. King would nod his head in acknowledgement and it would be clear to him that when it comes to race, we in America have made much progress, however, we still have a long way to go. It is indeed, a dream deferred, Ratchford said.

Ratchford ended his speech with Dr. King’s quotes, referring to them as “the genius of Dr. King.”

Music for the program, held annually by the Thermal Belt Friendship Council was provided by Bryant Belin and Beth Thomas. This year a creative contest was also offered to area middle school students for art and essays and an annual scholarship was awarded as well.

Tryon Mayor Jim Wright welcomed the audience. He said last year we had lost Nelson Mandela shortly before the Martin Luther King Jr. gathering and in the spring of 2004 the world lost Maya Angelou, a great poet and educator, a civil rights leader and a resident of North Carolina for a large portion of her life.

“As we listen to Willie Ratchford tonight, and as we set our personal paths this year, let’s keep Maya’s words in our head and in our heart,” said Wright. “She said, ‘Hate — it has caused a lot of problems in this world, but it has not solved one yet.”

The program ended with the audience singing, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” by James Waldon Johnson, and a reception. The program was funded by the Free Community Event Grant from the Polk County Community Foundation.