Lawmaker: King's dream economic justice as well as racial harmony

1 of 3

Members of the Elizabeth City State University Vikings football team help lead the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day March from the G.R. Little Library on Southern Avenue to Museum of the Albemarle on Water Street in Elizabeth City, Monday. About 200 ECSU students took part in the march.

012219 ECSU MLK Presentation

By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

A state lawmaker urged hundreds in Elizabeth City on Monday to reflect on Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream not just as a desire for racial harmony, but as a commitment to economic justice for all.

“King understood that economics and true equality went hand in hand,” state Rep. Zack Hawkins, D-Durham, told the audience that overflowed the auditorium at Museum of the Albemarle during Elizabeth City State University’s annual Martin Luther King Day ceremony.

Rather than focus on King’s well-known “I Have a Dream” speech, Hawkins — an ECSU graduate — shared excerpts of King’s “Where Do We Go From Here?” speech delivered in 1967, which was after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, but before passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

In the speech, available online through the MLK Research and Education Institute, King discussed his focus on civil rights and open housing in Chicago and Cleveland.

King also encouraged boycotts and protests — in campaigns known as “Operation Breadbasket” — against businesses that would not hire or invest in black communities, including depositing money in black-owned banks. King argued some businesses simply sought to extract wealth from a community, not grow it, and described those communities as “domestic colonies,” Hawkins said.

“It’s hard to pull yourself up from your bootstraps when your communities are consistently being robbed,” Hawkins said, paraphrasing the speech.

Hawkins also framed several policy proposals being debated today as continuing King’s legacy. They include a higher, “livable” minimum wage, granting workers collective bargaining rights, expanding Medicaid, and making more investment in rural communities, particularly broadband Internet. All are needed to help some 1.7 million North Carolinians living in poverty — many of them minority children living in extreme poverty, Hawkins noted — and some 500,000 people without access to health insurance, he said, citing a common statistic used in support of Medicaid expansion.

Those proposals are favored more by Democrats than Republicans, though local Democratic and Republican lawmakers agree on the importance of rural broadband and other infrastructure investments.

Hawkins also urged the audience to vote and be politically active.

Keith Rivers, president of the Pasquotank County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, spoke briefly as well Monday. He said King’s “dream of justice and freedom is meaningless unless they become the personal possession of each and every one of us.”

In an indirect criticism of President Donald Trump, Rivers also said King’s dream “is a call to action to fight against right-wing extremists who wish to ‘make America great again’ by taking us backward to the era of Jim Crow.”

Monday’s ceremony also included brief remarks from Elizabeth City Mayor Bettie Parker, ECSU Chancellor Karrie Dixon, and greetings from Mid-Atlantic Christian University by Dan Smith and the College of The Albemarle by Alicia Stokley.

Notably, high school student Gavin Morris also read his winning essay about MLK Day, in which he discussed learning from and overcoming failure.

Bishop Timothy Stallings also gave opening and closing prayers for the occasion.

Also in attendance Monday were the nearly 200 ECSU students who participated in ECSU’s annual King march.

Matthew Jarvis, president of the ECSU chapter of the NAACP and a march organizer, said it was good to see students out “to commemorate the greatness of Martin Luther King.” He also said he hoped the day, and King’s legacy, encouraged each student to be a voice and force for change.

Erin Davis, ECSU assistant dean for student development for Student Affairs, also helped organize the march. She said King stood out as a counselor, teacher, and disciplinarian, and, by serving students, she’s taken to heart his comments about serving others.

“I’m living one of his quotes every day,” she said.

ECSU’s football team also joined the march, standing out by wearing their jerseys, even if stretched over thick coats they wore to stay warm on the freezing morning. Treye Parker, a defensive tackle, said he was glad to join the celebration that also showed good school spirit.

Nyasia Luke —who notably also sang the Black National Anthem during the ceremony at the museum — also said she was joining the march to honor King and other “leaders who paid for us.” Civil rights leaders pushed for change in the face of racism and often violence, she noted. King was jailed, injured, and ultimately assassinated in his push for civil rights.

Asked whether she felt the nation was closer to King’s dream today, Luke wouldn’t use the word “closer,” but said “we’re making progress.”