Speech at MLK Remembrance, 1/16/2012

Text of Speech given by Susan Anglada Bartley, at the World Arts Foundation Dr. King Memorial Tribute at Highland Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon on January 16th, 2012. (Broadcast and webcast by KBOO Community Radio)

Thank you to the World Arts Foundation, Highland Church, and especially Kenneth Barry for his extraordinary dedication to keeping the dream alive.

I want to start with a personal story. I need to take you back to about 1987, in Buffalo, New York, when I was a nine year old girl. With the desolation of the economy due to closure of auto plants and steel mills, tens of thousands of people, many of whom were descendants of the wave of African American workers who moved to Northern cities for employment after World War II, had lost their jobs and homes. The crack cocaine and heroin epidemic had taken over the inner city, and even members of my own family. A sense of desperation gripped our urban landscape. My mother, a woman who moved to Buffalo from Detroit with no college education, had saved her money from the flower shop, one day telling my brother and me that we were going to New York City to stay, for just one night, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Looking back, I can see that she wanted to show us the world beyond our downtrodden city.

In contrast to the poverty of Buffalo, it was shocking to see how rich people lived. While I faintly remember the crystal chandeliers in the hotel’s foyer, there is one moment I vividly recall. After entering the elevator, a beautiful African American woman and two African American males in black suits entered. My mother pulled me close, whispering, “Never forget this moment,” she said, “That’s Coretta Scott King and her bodyguards.”

Looking up at the woman, I saw her royal blue dress, and the confident, distant gaze in her large brown eyes. I didn’t breathe, and from that moment a life lesson was revealed to me that took me years to understand: To be wealthy was to be a woman like Coretta Scott King.

As I stand here in my eighth month of pregnancy, I wonder what was running through Ms. King’s mind when she was pregnant with her first child in 1955 – the same year when Claudette Coldin and Rosa Park’s refused to give up their seats, 1955; the same year that Emmitt Till was killed for whistling at a white woman in Money, Mississippi, 1955; the same year that Civil Rights activists Lamar Smith and George W. Lee were both brutally murdered.

I think of the faith it took to hold a child inside her womb, and to persevere, though her family faced death threats and her children would face hatred and discrimination in school because of the color of their skin.

When I think of the sacrifice of the very Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta, I come closer and closer to know, I think, a godly definition of true wealth. As A high school teacher, I try my best to keep the memory of Dr. King thriving. Franklin school has made some positive changes that do honor the legacy of Dr. King. Under the leadership of Principal Shay James and Vice Principal Lavert Robertson, we have created the Advanced Scholar Program, a program that requires students to commit to taking a minimum of four Advanced Scholar classes during high school. Though Shay’s leadership, all barriers to Advanced Placement classes have been removed. We have instituted a tutoring center to provide support for students who need help with high level homework. And all the way, the intent behind Shay’s leadership is not solely to push forward African American students; it is to create a rigorous environment in which all students can thrive. The result has been dramatic increases, over the past three years, in the numbers of African American students, and students living in poverty from all backgrounds, taking AP classes. The school was recognized by the College Board’s office of equity last summer because of the clearly documented success. Though we are seeing these results, we still face problems in finding continuous funding, in ensuring that every student has the support they need to pass the classes, and in completely eradicating racism from our school environment so that even more black and latino students partake in the most challenging curriculum available to them.

While I’m happy to share the positive news about Franklin, I remember that Dr. King’s legacy cannot be celebrated through boasting or partial success. Even on December 10th in Oslo, 1964 when Dr. King accepted his Nobel Prize speech, Dr. King began his speech by remembering the struggles of his people.“I am mindful,” he said, “that only yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death”.

So today, 48 years after that speech was given, I celebrate Dr. King by asking that we continue to walk in his footsteps by analyzing the places in our public schools where racism still exists, and praying for the courage to be willing to continue to fight for equality. I ask you to consider speaking up even more about issues of discrimination that you see taking place in Portland Public Schools. Many of you, who have African American or Latino children attending school in this district know, even better than I do, about the exact kind of discrimination that is taking place. I applaud the district for engaging in the <i>Courageous Conversations</i> curriculum, and I have participated in this program since the first pilot group. I also see a variety of structural changes that can be made, directly by Portland Public, in order to expedite the process of eradicating racism. While Doctor King was the greatest advocate for non-violent communication, we must also remember the aspect of King that practiced systems analysis. Currently, the district had hired some highly qualified African American and Latino staff to help with the process of restructuring systems that are negatively affecting black and Latino youth.

Black and Latino children in Portland Public Schools are still far more likely to receive a discipline referral. The discipline system for children in Portland Public Schools needs serious revision. We also need to look at our athletic coaching staff, district wide, and ask that the district make it a priority to hire more African American, Latino and female coaches not for assistant positions, but for Head Coaching positions. Shouldn’t our role models in athletics at least reflect the ethnic backgrounds of many of our teams?

Like Rev. Dr. King, let’s ask for strength  never to tire until our work is truly done. Also, let’s look beyond the goal of high school graduation for black and Latino youth, and begin more Pre-AP programs in middle schools and high schools so that we can create a College Graduation Initiative, expecting every student in Portland Public Schools, including Special Education students, to take at least one AP or Dual credit class, whether they are earning college credit in auto mechanics or AP Physics.

In closing, I humbly ask you to consider, when you meet any young man or woman, to look into their eyes and see a King. In my own experience, you never know when and where you might meet one. It could be at the bus stop, it could be in an elevator, and it could be in your own classroom, or it could be the child sitting next to you right now. Tell all the young people in the audience right now for me, let’s do this call and response style: “We believe in you,” “We love you” “We are working together to protect you.” 

 

 

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