Fort Worth area activists urged Americans to reflect on the racial divisions that unfolded in 2015 as the nation celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The June massacre of nine black worshippers in a South Carolina church and ongoing concern about police treatment of minorities show the need to keep striving for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a “Beloved Community,” civil rights activists said.
Leaders said MLK’s words still resonate:
“God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race, the creation of a society where every man will respect the dignity and worth of personality. So when we sing We Shall Overcome, we are singing a hymn of faith, a hymn of optimism, a hymn of faith in the future,” King said in June 1965 during his commencement address at Oberlin College.
“2015 has been a year of ups and a lot of downs,” said the Rev. Robert Jackson, board president of the Greater Fort Worth Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Committee Inc.
More work remains to be done, leaders said.
“We cannot be comfortable where we are because we have not come the whole way yet,” said Tyron Lane, pastor of the New Creation Church in Fort Worth.
In April, the shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., after a police stop grabbed national headlines. Days later, riots broke out in Baltimore over Freddie Gray, 25, who died while in police custody.
In June, nine people were shot to death during a prayer service at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. Dylann Roof, 21, is charged in the June 17 shooting. Authorities have described his actions as an effort to start racial tension. He appeared in photos holding Confederate flags.
“We have come up as a community, but we have not overcome,” Lane said.
Voices for change
The events of 2015 proved the need to keep pushing, said Alisa Simmons, president of the Arlington branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“Those of us who believe in justice know that obtaining it is a constant struggle,” she said, adding:
“Dr. King said, ‘It is our moral obligation to speak out against injustice wherever it rears its ugly head.’ He also said, ‘There comes a time when silence is betrayal.’ It is clear to me that African-Americans and other communities of color have gotten to a place where being quiet about and ignoring injustices and inequality is no longer how we want to address these issues.”
Simmons said some cases hit close to home.
Two in 2015 prompted activists to seek answers from the Arlington police. In one, Christian Taylor of Arlington was fatally shot by a police officer at a car dealership. The police officer in that case was fired.
In the other, activists and family members demanded answers in the death of Jonathan Ryan Paul, 42, who died in an Arlington hospital four days after his arrest.
Officials with the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office ruled that Paul died an “in-custody death with application of physical restraints,” while listing acute psychosis as a contributing factor.
Arlington police officials recommended firing three detention officers and have suspended a detention supervisor as a result of Paul’s death. Two detention officers working at the time of Paul’s death were indicted on charges of criminally negligent homicide.
Simmons said those cases helped unite a renewed civil rights movement in which the NAACP and millennial-led social justice advocacy groups such as Color of Change, Black Lives Matter and others became “powerful voices for change and reform in the unfinished work that is the civil rights movement.”
She said there is new energy and focus on reform, voting rights, educational justice and economic justice.
“African-Americans have always been expected to accept our tragedies with a high degree of dignity. Black outrage isn't allowed because it frightens the dominant society. It is refreshing to see a new movement underway led by millennials as well as traditional civil rights associations,” Simmons said.
Building a ‘Beloved Community’
MLK’s “Beloved Community” is a global vision in which “poverty, hunger, homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it,” according to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. Another facet of that vision: “Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.”
Melinda Veatch, executive director of Tarrant Churches Together, an inter-church nonprofit organization that works to bridge divisions in Tarrant County, said there were too many examples in 2015 of communities moving away from MLK’s vision.
For example, in the case of Walter Scott, news accounts showed how he was shot by a police officer while running away during a traffic stop. “He was shot in the back,” she said. “What kind of world is that?”
Veatch said MLK’s vision comes closer to reality when communities talk to each other instead of at each other. She said too many times the tone of today’s discussion is divisive and doesn’t reflect the spirit of King’s words.
“He did not speak hatred,” she said. “He spoke truth.”
Staff writer Mitch Mitchell contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.