Dream Keepers:  It’s time to remember;  It’s time to assess;  It’s time to act

A United States postal stamp issued in memory of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. (Courtesy of Flikr user US Embassy New Delhi.)

NORWALK, Conn. – When I visit my mom, my only living parent, I often discuss my disappointment in what my generation is doing for the next.  When I am “home” I am surrounded by Black lawyers, judges, nurses, teachers, and university professors, those who did their parts for my generation.  Many are retired.  Some are still going strong.  All, a generation or three from sharecropping, used education to gain access to a higher level of life and have remained humble as can be.  They tutor school children, mentor the newbies in their respective fields, volunteer at shelters, deliver meals to the shut-in, etc. They understand unselfishness. They demonstrate community.

During my last visit home, between talking to living history, preparing for the Baptist and the AME ministers who are extended family members, I helped my mom prepare for a speech for their city-wide Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. We read chapters of Dr. King’s autobiography aloud together. We exchanged thoughts and, without writing a word, she practically formed her speech on the spot.

Here are some excerpts:

Plan for Education

During Dr. King’s senior year of high school, at age 15, he entered an oratorical contest. The subject was “The Negro and the U.S. Constitution.” Dr. King used the experiences of Marian Anderson, an opera singer, to bring awareness to the contradictions between the nation’s biblical faith and constitutional values and the continuing problem of racial discrimination.

From September of 1944 to June of 1948, he went to Morehouse College, where he received a BA in sociology. He was ordained as a Baptist Minister his senior year, at age 19.

From September of 1948 to May of 1952, he went to Crozer Theological Seminary and earned a BA in divinity.

Then, from September of 1951 to June of 1955, he went to Boston University and earned a doctorate of philosophy in systematic theology.

Be Open to God’s Placements

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. invited Dr. King to give a trial sermon in consideration for the pastorate of that church.  The subject of that sermon was “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life: Self, Others and God.”

He became pastor of Dexter Avenue Church on Oct. 31, 1954.  Dr. King was in Montgomery for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955 – 1956, following Rosa Park’s arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a white man.  Oh, say can you see the providential course working in his life?

Be Specific About Goal and Strategy

I remember asking my mother if she thought the mission of civic organizations had morphed into fitting into higher society rather than the mission for which they were founded.  I asked if she thought some of today’s vanguards hold these organizations hostage by making them clubs for cliques that enable them to be seen or help only their own.  I asked if she thought some of the vanguards use their positions as an unspoken bargaining tool to get what they want personally/politically in exchange for calming the roaring crowd and making relevant issues go away, or as an unspoken threat of rallying the troops if they don’t get what they want personally/professionally. I needed to reason why the same issues keep getting tossed around in particular cities with a lot of bloviating and little to no change!

Her bottom-line was that leaders of her generation had specific wants and specific tactics.  She used the Albany, Ala. Movement of 1961 to illustrate the organizational mistake of not attacking specific issues.  Dr. King’s tactic was non-violent non-compliance, passive resistance and Christian love.  It didn’t change, not even in the face of police brutality, water hoses, dog attacks and bombings.  Imagine the strength of character that took!

When the younger generation tired of non-violence (see the DVD “The Black Power Mix Tape” shot by a group of Swedish journalists). Dr. King understood their reasoning, but he reasoned with them to understand his strategy and the fate that might accompany theirs.

Though the same fate befell the both militant and the nonviolent who wanted better conditions for Black people, below please find specific issues that were challenged under Dr. King’s leadership:

Remember 1960:

Sit in movements all over the south were a demand for respect by students.

Remember 1961:

  Albany, Ala. Movement – Albany was a picture of worse discrimination. Even though their demands were not met (because of the nonspecific requests), the Blacks straightened their backs. As the saying goes, “No one can ride your back unless it’s bent.”

 Remember 1963:

  Birmingham Campaign – high school and college students were attacked by fire hoses and dogs. A thousand children were arrested and then expelled or suspended by the Board of Education. It took the court system to reverse that decision.

  President John F. Kennedy announced his proposed new Civil Rights Bill.

  Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington.

  Dr. King leads 125,000 people on a Freedom Walk in Detroit.

  Four Black girls were killed in Sunday School by the dynamiting of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

  Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi. (Read “Coming of Age in Mississippi” by Ann Moody and “Nigger” by Dick Gregory)

  President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

 Remember 1964:

   St. Augustine, Fla. Movement which came about after the Ku Klux Klan beating of four Blacks.

  The Civil Rights Act was passed under President Lyndon Johnson as a follow-through on what President Kennedy had begun.

  Three civil rights workers went missing after their arrest in Philadelphia, Miss.

  The Mississippi Challenge resulted in The National Democratic Party pledging never to seat a racially segregated delegation again after The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party took issue with the legitimacy of the white-only U.S. Democratic Party and challenged the National Democratic Party convention to seat their delegates.

  The Selma, Ala. march for the right to vote

  Dr. King is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

 Remember 1965:

  The Voting Rights Act was passed.

  The Watts (Calif.) violence resulted in 30 deaths.

  The Chicago Open Housing Bill began and was later passed.

 Remember 1967:

  The inception of the Poor People’s Campaign focused on jobs and freedom for the poor of all races.

 Remember 1968:

  Dr. King announces that the Poor People’s Campaign will result in a March on Washington for a $12 billion Economic Bill of Rights guaranteeing employment to the able-bodied, incomes to those unable to work, and an end to housing discrimination.

  Dr. King marches in support of sanitation workers on strike in Memphis,Tenn.

  Dr. King delivered the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.

  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, at age 39.

Don’t let his death be in vain. Take advantage of the rights he died for us to have. As much as we have to celebrate, we must also ask ourselves has the dream been totally accomplished? Let us insert ourselves as dream keepers. We have just elected our first Black president and that is very good, but what about the education divide that could keep other Black children from reaching that status? On the flip-side of that, what about the black-on-black crime? What about the disharmonious, nihilistic way we are represented on radio and television? Who is policing the Dadaism? From where came the disrespect some of our youth have for elders and educators?

What are some of the things that bother you? What are you doing to make them better? Some of Dr. King’s dream is unfulfilled and this is a fact of life. Some are the results of choices we have made and some are beyond our control.

Those who helped to right the world for my generation are aging now and deserve to know that their efforts en masse were not in vain. I would love to make them and this generation proud. One of my specific dreams is that no child enter middle school without proper reading skills; that if children have not reached the age-appropriate reading level by third grade, they are tested for a learning disability and work with a reading specialist who gets results if there isn’t a disability or be referred to the appropriate specialist if there is a one. Our clergy, once significant leaders in our community, know that Moses wanted to enter the promised land, but could not. Yet he had a dream keeper, Joshua. David wanted to build the temple, but could not. Yet he had a dream keeper, Solomon. Dr. King wanted to end discrimination but he couldn’t. He left dream keepers, namely you and me.

Sherelle Harris



9 responses to “Dream Keepers:  It’s time to remember;  It’s time to assess;  It’s time to act”

  1. Sharelle, Great Article! The time for action is now. We are responsible for our own future as well as the future of our precious young people. Dr. King was an amazing individual and inspirational leader. People need to realize the power they have to infuse people, love, and harmony in the world that we currently live in. Keep up the great work! Thank you for your enlightening letter.

  2. LWitherspoon

    Sherelle, thank you for sharing this beautifully written, comprehensive, and well-argued piece with us. Why don’t we hear the truths contained in your message more regularly from the current crop of community leaders? In addition to the reasons you so eloquently cited, controversy makes a better story and the media seem to prefer quoting bomb throwers.

  3. Original BARIN

    Wow, great article Ms. Harris, that shows past triumphs by true leaders.
    Personally here in Norwalk we truly miss the folks like Reverend Stenhouse, Reverend Ball and Ms. Bea Brown to name a few.
    They consistenly followed up on issues that affected our community, a perfect example was the push to hire more minorities for the Norwalk fire department in the late seventies and early eighties.
    It worked, but let us take a look at current reality, in just one city department.
    Our fire department was incorporated in 1913, 100 years old this year, of course it is older I’m sure, in that time there have been a total of seventeen African American, six Hispanic and no women firefighters in department history.
    Since 1986, there have been three African Americans, three hispanic and no women hired as firefighters in Norwalk (27 years).
    It gets worse, since 2004 they have lost several African American and one Hispanic fire department members.
    This also includes the fact that only two of those minority members in the history of the department have been promoted officers, one African American, one Hispanic.
    Does anyone see a problem here with the dwindling numbers?
    The diversity of our community is fantastic, but numbers should reflect that diversity in all city departments.
    The only time these conversations come up is Black History month, shortest month of the year, then we all forget about the issue until next February.
    Our local leaders must figure out what’s going on here now, stop the February talk and actually do something, back in the day local leaders would have made sure to get to the bottom of it.
    Recently the fire department held a test to hire new firefighters, hopefully the numbers will be better representative of our diverse community in the hiring of women and minorities.
    I can only hope that our local community, ministry and Naacp leaders will pursue answers and the change necessary to bring our fire department into the 21st century.
    The time for action is now as Tommy V stated.
    I think our local leaders may have their respective heads in the sand on this ongoing issue, if the media wants, they can be like Nancy and get down to the nitty gritty, they can start by asking real questions to our community leaders about diversity in hiring and promotions of qualified minorities and women in city departments where lacking, whether there is a better story somewhere else or not.
    The media should go directly to the source, past and current members of all city departments and ask them what they think, doubtful though because no one really wants the truth it appears.
    I wonder if other city departments have similar problems?

  4. LWitherspoon

    The truths to which I was referring are in this paragraph:
    “We have just elected our first Black president and that is very good, but what about the education divide that could keep other Black children from reaching that status? On the flip-side of that, what about the black-on-black crime? What about the disharmonious, nihilistic way we are represented on radio and television? Who is policing the Dadaism? From where came the disrespect some of our youth have for elders and educators?”
    As regards minority firefighters, one would need to know how many minorities passed all the tests with high scores and still weren’t hired before declaring that a racial injustice has occurred. I don’t know about you but if my house catches fire, I’m more concerned that the crew that shows up be highly qualified for fighting fires. Racial diversity is a secondary concern.
    With respect to the Norwalk Police, I believe there are significant numbers of minorities on the force. I have also heard that the NPD has a hard time hiring the number of women and minorities that it would like, because relatively few apply and pass the challenging written and physical fitness exams.

  5. Joanne Romano

    Great article Sherelle!! I grew up watching Dr. Kink try to fulfill his dreams, Unfortunately the world was ready and sometimes seems it isn’t today! I had a very unsettling experience yesterday in NYC..as we were walking to the theater 3 young black men were selling their CD’s to promote themselves, now while I am not a huge fanof Hip Hop or Rap, I decided to stop because I thought hey my grandsons like this music so why not? As I approached the 3 I picked up one of the CD’s and didn’t see one of them holding one out to me as I turned to tell my boyfriend I wanted to get one or two for the kids. It was at that point that the young man asked where I was from and proceeded to tell me, don’t worry ma’am, the brown doesn’t rub off! I was insulted and proceededto tell him so in no uncertain terms by telling him “yes, I know, it doesn’t rub off my grandson either”! I told him he should be ashamed of himself for even saying such a thing! At that point he just looked at me a little sheepishly and didn’t say a word. So you see predjudice and profiling comes in all colors and races, and its very sad! This young man didn’t know me nor did he know anything about me but assumed because I was white…and so the story goes. Dr. King did have a dream and hopefully, albeit probably not in my life time, some if not all of his dreams will come to fruition. But it begins at home…children aren’t born to hate, theyare taught!!! We need to start teaching them better or Dr. Kings dreams will have been for naught! You see, as I have always believed, we all bleed the same color and God doesn’t make mistakes…just ignorance!

    Sherelle, keep up the good work, our children need you and your never ending pursuit to make their lives better! It has always been my pleasure to call you my friend! By the way, those 3 young men should be happy this white women stopped yesterday, we bought a CD from each of them to help promote their careers! I just have one request…that I don’t have to listen to them!!! 🙂

  6. Joanne Romano

    I so wish there was a correction button on this site! Sorry for the mispells!

  7. Original BARIN

    Corrections, we have RE-elected our first black president, and I didn’t declare racial injustice.
    It appears you are defending something with out the pertinent facts to make an informed decision, let me assist you with that.
    I wasn’t talking just minorities but women also, I agree you should take a look at the all test scores, that would be a good start, at the very least start somewhere.
    Of course you must pass the the test and score well enough to be hired, but I did mention some of the facts that need to be looked at by our community leaders.
    I disagree that racial diversity is secondary, many groups are intimidated when they see no one that looks like them show up at their front door, not just for a fire, but any emergency, it is important to remember that changing the mindset of our community pertaining to diverse opportunities for positions in city government and city departments is vital.
    For instance, many times regarding the police, the trust is an issue difficult to overcome for minorities, some are more comfortable speaking with someone that can relate better to them in their minds.
    It may be just their perception, but sometimes perception is reality.
    My point was that in a city like Norwalk, all departments should reflect the diversity of the citizens they serve, and the fire department currently does not.
    I would recommend you taking a look at the utilization analysis for Fairfield County, it is available on the city website or through the city Human Relations department, our numbers are terrible for the fire department, but pretty good for the police department pertaining to diverse city departments.
    If you really want to know, do your homework start after 1986, look at fire commission meeting minutes, see what you come up with and get back to me.
    You may just change your tune, I know of one test in the late eighties that had numerous diverse candidates on the hiring list that was thrown out.
    I still see some of the people on that list around town, to this day they don’t know what happened, they were certain they did well.
    All of us need to be part of the solutions, not the problems.
    I encourage everyone that have questions about my opinion, to actually take the time to take a real look at the facts.
    Until that is done you are enabling the continuation of the problem at hand.

  8. LWitherspoon

    In my opinion the issues Sherelle raised in her editorial are far more important than counting the number of minorities in the Norwalk Fire Department. I have not studied the issue so I don’t know whether or not discrimination is at play. You clearly seem to think it is, so I’m puzzled as to why you haven’t shared any of the evidence supporting that conclusion.
    I have little appetite for reading Fire Commission minutes from 25 years ago.
    Whether or not there is discrimination influencing NFD hires, the larger and more pressing issues are the ones Sherelle raised in her editorial. Who do you feel should be speaking out against black-on-black crime? Objecting to the disharmonious, nihilistic way African-Americans are represented on radio and television? Policing the Dadaism? What do you think should be done about the disrespect some of our youth have for elders and educators?

  9. Broderick I. Sawyer

    Ms./ Mr. Witherspoon,
    I have been reading some of the articles and comments on this site, I have only felt the need to comment once or twice, this is one of those times.
    With all due respect, what are you talking about, you have to know the past to help change the future.
    The comments are correct in regard to past years, I have first hand knowledge of it.
    How about this, you and I can sit down, at your convenience, and I will show you exactly what transpired then, I am more than willing to share the information I have with anyone who cares to make positive change.
    This will assist you in understanding what has been truly going on behind the scenes.
    It is also human nature that no one cares until it happens to them, this is why no one wants to know.
    If you know something is absolutely wrong and do nothing to right the wrong, you are just as guilty for doing nothing.
    I’m not sure you truly understand the problem, so it would be difficult for you to be part of the solution without that understanding.
    Is there a good time can we sit down and talk?
    Ball is in your court, feel free to kick the can down the road if you are not interested.

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