On MLK Day, nation confronts ‘a reckoning about our past’

Detroit News staff and wire reports

Detroit — More than a half-century after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. became the voice of a movement with a clarion call for equality, Nicholas Thomas and other volunteers will board up vacant houses, install school safety signs and make improvements to a Detroit neighborhood.

Their mission is to celebrate King’s legacy by being good neighbors and helping lift up a primarily black school in one of the poorest areas of the city.

As Thomas fans out across the neighborhood with hammer and nails, King’s legacy of peace and racial and social justice will be foremost in his mind. But at the same time, he’s struggling to come to grips with the deep racial divisions roiling the nation.

“Dr. King wanted unity. We have Trump separating immigrants ... the wall,” said the 19-year-old Thomas.

People have the right to be concerned about the state of race relations and the way people of color are being treated, said Jill Savitt, president of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.

“What we’re seeing right now, it's very public and people are showing their hatred openly, but it doesn't mean it wasn’t there,” Savitt said.

“There is a coming realization in our country. We have to come to a reckoning about our past and the truth about our history from slavery to the lynching era to Jim Crow. Only with real honesty about our situation can we come to some reconciliation and move on to fulfill King's hope and dream of a real, peaceful multicultural democracy.”

It doesn't help when elected leaders don't, or are slow to, stand against hate and intolerance, she added.

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► READ MORE: Martin Luther King Jr. honored with Detroit area events

► READ MORE: Bankole Thompson wonders what MLK would say about Detroit

As concerns remain about worsening racial relations and economic, hostilities and disparities in the United States, scores across the region are hosting gatherings, marches, volunteer opportunities and other activities rooted in King’s call for social action to ensure his work will not be forgotten.

'Critical time for us'

The looming 2020 election is on the minds of many honoring King. Some worry the Democratic field challenging President Donald Trump has seen two black candidates — U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker — and the lone candidate of Hispanic ancestry, former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, drop out of the race for the White House.

“That scares me a lot,” said Deja Hood, 21, a senior at Eastern Michigan. "Who is going to really back our voicing? You can't understand a minority if you’ve never been in a minority situation. Even though you can advocate for us all day, you could never understand the issues we go through on a daily basis.”

Only 6% of African American voters went for Trump in the 2016 election, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. Trump’s message to black voters in that campaign was: “What have you got to lose?” Supporters now say they have a record to point to, including the low black unemployment rate and investments in historically black colleges and universities.

A Washington Post-Ipsos poll of African Americans in early January found that 90% disapprove of Trump’s job performance and 83% say Trump is racist.

“Racism has long been a way for people to maintain their power,” Savitt said. “Manipulating people's fears and anxieties is the way you do that. The Trump administration has certainly fanned the flames.”

But laying it all in Trump’s lap is unfair, said Carol Swain, an advisory board member to the national Black Voices for Trump.

“With Trump, he has pushed the American nationalist identity that I think tamps down the kind of conflicts we would have,” said Swain, who has taught political science at Vanderbilt and Princeton universities. “He has pushed patriotism over race, and that benefits our country."

It's under this shadow that commemorations in Metro Detroit are scheduled Monday to honor King's birth, which was first celebrated as a national holiday in 1986. The days surrounding the celebrations are imbued with deeper meaning, particularly for younger generations decades removed from the fractious era that propelled the civil rights leader’s rise.

Issues such as health care, women's rights, sexual harassment and assault, economic inequality, and civil rights resonate, even as some battles remain entrenched.

Some say today's efforts are even more necessary.

“It is a very critical time for us. We are struggling for the soul of the nation,” said the Rev. Wendell Anthony, who leads the Detroit Branch NAACP. “People want to leave Dr. King on a mountaintop dreaming. ... He was a worker, not just a talker. He was a doer, not just a dreamer. He brought people together. He didn’t march to keep them apart.”

That ethos is leading Abria Dent and dozens of other volunteers to take matters into their own hands on Monday, when schools and businesses typically are closed.

Instead of relaxing with friends, the Cass Technical High School student was expected to spend hours braving the cold to helping board up vacant homes in southwest Detroit through an annual effort led by the AmeriCorps Urban Safety Project and Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Studies.

“Seeing all of the houses that are abandoned and dilapidated — it’s just heartbreaking. What I really want to do is make it a safer and clean neighborhood,” the 17-year-old said. “Martin Luther King Day really means a lot to me because I see him as such an inspiration. I want to be able to do something good in the world like he did.”

Nearly 35 miles north, at Utica High School in Macomb County, another teen is working to ensure King won’t be relegated to textbooks or homework assignments.

Lauren Demas has been tapped to oversee her fellow students volunteering during the school’s third annual Day of Service honoring King. The typically bustling cafeteria will house a host of stations, including gathering blankets to provide to sick children through the nonprofit Project Linus and sorting donated canned goods or non-perishable food earmarked for Gleaners Community Food Bank.

'Same fight again'

In recent years, activists have decried the deaths of minorities during encounters with law enforcement across the country.

In 2018, there were more than 7,000 single-bias incidents reported by law enforcement, according to FBI hate crime statistics. More than 53% of the offenders were white, while 24% were black. Nearly 60% of the incidents involved race, ethnicity and ancestry.

The American Civil Liberties Union has described racial profiling as “longstanding and deeply troubling national problem.” Last spring, a Pew Research Center survey found that 58% of Americans believe race relations in the U.S. are deteriorating.

“We’re so misguided today in terms of public policy, in terms of the racial divide, people’s level of tolerance,” said Anthony, who has led the NAACP’s Detroit chapter for more than 26 years.

“…It doesn’t feel as though people really understand that we’ve been through a struggle to try to bring the nation to a different sense of itself to the degree that we fought for civil rights, voting rights, equality, women’s rights and labor rights. Now we’re having to fight the same fight again.”

Eastern Michigan University’s King celebrations, themed "Rise Up Against Injustice" began Thursday, when more than 200 participants marched across campus in a nod to King's historic 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march that preceded the Voting Rights Act.

Among the crowd was Quentin Washington, a graduating senior studying mechanical engineering and technology at the school. He notes King, who has also belonged to his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, set a high standard.

“Social justice is something we all should strive for,” said Washington, who spoke before the march and won an MLK essay scholarship.

EMU alumnus James Lewis, center right, speaks before the MLK Commemorative Walk.

Chocolate Brooks, 21, another EMU student, also earned a scholarship for an essay she penned connecting her dreams of becoming a social worker to King’s fight against inequality. She cited his resilience even while facing death threats and violence as the reason the holiday continues to inspire many youths.

“It means remembering what he did and taking those good risks, sticking up for yourself and others around you, being that voice, that leader people might need,” the 21-year-old from Detroit said. “It can inspire people to not be afraid to speak their mind, stand up for what they believe is right.”

That is not lost on Donna Jawad, who as a child emigrated from Lebanon to Michigan about two years before King was assassinated in 1968. She now keeps a picture of him for inspiration in a binder brimming with articles, prayers and other mementos from her interfaith work.

“I look at it and wonder what he would do in today’s world,” said Jawad, who attends the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn and serves on the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit board. “It’s important to take his message and carry it on — to care for each other and do unto others what you want done to yourself.”

On Sunday, she was to join volunteers from different faiths to help feed visitors at the Crossroads of Michigan soup kitchen in Detroit through a King holiday effort led by Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills.

“I just think of the other people that are hungry and going through struggle in society. That’s what Dr. King fought for,” Jawad said. “We weren’t put on Earth to hurt each other.”

King's effort was especially significant for Jon Buyle, a psychologist who attends Christ Church Cranbrook and recalls participating in civil rights marches in the 1960s.

Before his death, King called for lifting up the poor and challenging economic disparities, the Oakland County resident said.

The leader, like Gandhi and Christ, “never die. They just become more relevant in this time in history,” he said.

“Discrimination is not over despite all the successes we may have had," Buyle said. "We have to keep fighting for those rights and needs.”

On Monday, Kyra Mitchell, 20, will honor King's legacy in a gathering that looks toward social justice.

The Eastern Michigan University student has long considered the civil rights leader's words as mottoes and looks to his example as a way to shape her steps, whether in education or activism. And when her school announced its annual celebration of King’s life on what would be 91 years after his birth, she was eager to join.

Mitchell picked helping to present an academic session with peers on the trafficking of African American women and girls across the country as one way to honor King, whose ideals were espoused long before she was born. His goals resonate, however.

“To be able to carry that on is important to me: taking one day out of the year to recognize him and how far we’ve come and see where we can move forward,” Mitchell said.

Detroit News Staff Writer Mark Hicks and Associated Press contributed.