Column: Fight for civil rights continues

2:17 PM, Jan. 24, 2013  |  Comments
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Earlier this week, I took part in the sixth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Celebration organized by Justiceworks. The evening honored the work of Roseann DeBot, the tireless volunteer director of Operation Bootstrap, a community food pantry and resource center. We listened to outstanding performances by the Stevens Point Area Senior High Concert Choir and the Monteverdi Master Chorale.

As I prepared the keynote address, I reflected on my childhood years deep in the segregated South. Most people think I am from Oklahoma, but I grew up in southern Arkansas, less than 75 miles from the Louisiana state line. My father was a house painter. Neither of my parents had graduated from high school, and we were, by any standard, poor. Because my mother was very frugal, we always had food on the table. And I was privileged.

I was privileged because I am white and I am male.

I was 8 years old when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white man. The U.S. Congress would later name her "the first lady of civil rights" and "the mother of the freedom movement."

When I was just shy of 10 years old, President Dwight Eisenhower federalized Arkansas National Guard troops and nine black students were escorted into the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. The group of students came to be known as the "Little Rock Nine."

I left the South at the age of 15 having no idea the impact of segregation - the life-long psychological and social scarring of children forced to sit in the balcony of the movie theater, of attending separate and unequal schools, of drinking from separate water fountains, of being refused service at a lunch counter, of taking a seat at the back of the bus, of being denied the fundamental right to vote, and of being denied equality.

It was the same year James Meredith, an African-American and U.S. Air Force veteran, attempted to enroll at Ole Miss. Riots ensued, two people died, hundreds were wounded and many arrested. Meredith was finally allowed to enroll on Oct. 1, 1962. Having transferred credits to the university, he graduated Aug. 18, 1963, with a degree in political science.

I came of age during turbulent years - church bombings, assassinations, the marches that ended in bloodshed. There were also historic moments of hope - the signing of the Civil Rights Act and the March on Washington.

The fight for civil rights in this country has been a long, hard road, and we are not yet at the end of our journey.

According to the 2010 census, the median income of whites in our country is $54,600, for blacks $32,000. The incarceration rate of blacks is nearly three times the rate for whites. And while 30.3 percent of whites have attained four years of college or more, that statistic is 19.8 percent for blacks. And education impacts the ability to find a job. The higher level of education attained, the less likely an individual will be unemployed.

Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations and 2001 Nobel Peace Prize winner said, "Education is a human right with immense power to transform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development."

We know our work is not yet finished. It will not be finished until the board rooms of corporate America are as diverse as our classrooms, there is equal pay for equal work, there is equal opportunity for all, when people are free to associate with and marry whomever they chose, when all eligible voters can exercise their right to vote, when we understand that the dominate religion is not the only religion. And when, our children, in the words of Martin Luther King, "will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

Write a letter to the editor or to your elected representatives. Engage in conversation with your neighbor, speak for those who have no voice.

And when you are tired or have doubts, remember the words of Margaret Mead,"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.""

Bernie Patterson is chancellor for the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

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