Penny: Be the solution to MLK's dream

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Secretary of the NC Department of Revenue Ronald Penny speaks at the 16 annual Martin Luther King, jr. Community Breakfast at the K.E. White Center, Monday, Jan.15, 2018.

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Monday, January 15, 2018

The featured speaker at the 16th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast asked the audience to be part of the solution to the slain civil rights leader's dream for a more perfect union.

"Today we celebrate a man who believed in America," N.C. Revenue Secretary Ronald Penny, a former Elizabeth City resident and a retired attorney, told a Monday breakfast gathering at the K.E. White Center.

"And he believed in the promise of America," Penny said of King. "He believed in the values of America. He believed in the potential of America.

"He believed so much in this nation that he was willing to die so that we could see the hypocrisy of our ways," Penny said.

King was 39 when he was cut down by sniper fire on April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony outside his second story room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. King had gone to Memphis to support sanitation workers who had gone on strike.

Penny told the gathering King's hope for America couldn't be killed.

During his speech, Penny emphasized the words of the poet Robert Frost, who once said, "I have promises to keep and miles before I go to sleep."

Penny said he believes the first way to keep King's dream alive is to refocus America on the understanding of what it is to be an American.

He drew applause when he said, "Many of us don't understand the government and economics of America. We spend more time on social media than we do social studies."

He was referring to studies showing two out of three Americans get their news from social media yet showing only one out of four can name the federal government’s three branches: the executive; the legislative; and the judicial.

"And now, we have people who want to make America great, and we don't know what America is," he said.

He urged the audience to keep the feet of public officials, including his, to the proverbial fire and not to get sucked into "that social media hype" of people posting statements that would prompt their mothers to order them to go to their rooms.

Penny also called for refocusing America away from what he called "the dark inner fear of others" to "the brightness and opportunity found in diversity."

He said former President George W. Bush was correct in once saying, "Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions."

He also said that, with the rhetoric being espoused in the nation in recent months, "It is clear that some Americans fear the thought that this nation is demographically changing."

"Now, some fear change, period, and some fear racial change, but we must keep the dream alive," he said.

"And that means we must work together to strengthen this nation so that we can let people know that our diversity is a strength," he said.

While Penny, a Democrat, didn't cite President Trump by name, he did refer to the Republican billionaire businessman's successful 2016 election campaign slogan "Make America Great Again."

Penny said to those who want to look to the past to make America great again, "I choose to look to the future and make America greater than it has ever been, because we have a dream to keep and miles to go before we sleep."

Penny also said he believes there's a need for leaders and citizens to move from being selfish to being selfless.

He cited the story of Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old white middle-class housewife from Detroit, as an example.

In 1965, Liuzzo drove to Alabama's Black Belt region to help in the African-American struggle for voting rights there in the face of white racist defiance. Ku Klux Klansmen fatally shot Liuzzo while she was shuttling a black man on U.S. Highway 80 between Selma and Montgomery.  

Approximately five months after the slaying, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.

"It wasn't her fight," Penny told the audience of Liuzzo. "She was satisfied. She had a family, but she was selfless and not selfish."

Event attendee Juanita Shannon afterward said she believed Penny's speech was wonderful.

"It helped me to kind of get myself going so that I can re-energize and do what I need to do to be a help to my community and to this city," Shannon said.

Local leaders and officials spoke briefly prior to Penny's speech.

Elizabeth City Mayor Bettie Parker saluted King for paving a better way to a peaceful existence between African-Americans and whites. She also credited King for bringing about a greater degree of freedom with respect for human rights and for his legacy of helping to change the course of history.

Elizabeth City State University President Thomas Conway said he believes such a gathering at the K.E. White Center is the right way to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He said the idea on such a day is to come together as a community to stop, to reflect and to plan.

"One of the things that I would argue that this community has started to do right is come together to have these kinds of conversations," Conway said.

Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools Superintendent Larry Cartner called King a great 20th Century statesman whose words and actions reverberate even today down the halls of history. Cartner particularly emphasized King’s question about what people are doing for others.

He quoted King, who once said, "We may have all come on different ships, but we're all on the same boat now.”

The gathering is organized yearly by the local branch of the National Association of University Women.