(pictured above: Marchers make their way down the Anderson Center.)
The Ministers Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity vowed to continue to address the needs of the people on Monday during its afternoon Martin Luther King Jr. Day program at Winston-Salem State University’s Anderson Center.
“We are here again today because we have heard your cries,” said Ministers Conference President Rev. Willard Bass. “We’ve heard you come to us and say you need to have a voice, you need to have a moral voice, one to help you get what you need in this community, so we’re doing that; we’re speaking up and acting; we’re embracing our human rights.”
The Ministers Conference’s slate of MLK Day events began Monday morning with a Youth Rally and Breakfast at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, followed by a march up Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to the Anderson Center. A Monday evening event was held at St. Stephen Baptist Church, where Mt. Zion Pastor Dr. Serenus Churn was the speaker.
The Anderson Center program, themed “Speak up and Act: Embrace Your Human Rights!” featured a series of speakers addressing a variety of topics.
James Andrews, president of North Carolina State AFL-CIO, said that King was a huge supporter of the organized labor movement.
“Dr. King stated that labor unions were a principal source that transforms misery and despair into hope and progress,”
Andrews said that unions, which are severally restricted by the state’s right to work laws, are being targeted even more by the Republican majority in the General Assembly, whose speaker, Thom Tillis, has said he intends to keep North Carolina the “least unionized state in the United States” and introduced an amendment to add union restrictions to the state constitution. Andrews also spoke against lawmaker’s decision last year to decrease state unemployment benefits.
Wake Forest Baptist Medical School’s Dr. Richard Lord and Dr. Sylvia Flack, director of the WSSU Center of Excellence for the Elimination of Health Disparities, tackled health disparities.
Flack reflected on a time when hospitals were racially segregated. While segregation is no more, she said health disparities between African Americans and whites continue to have deadly consequences.
“We can’t carry out Martin Luther King’s dream because we’re dying prematurely,” she said.
Lord lamented the General Assembly’s decision to turn down federal Affordable Health Care Act dollars to expand Medicaid. The expansion would have meant a half-a-million more poor uninsured North Carolinians would have had health coverage – a major tool in the fight against health disparities. Lord said he hoped this year’s midterm election results will mean a reverse of this laws.
Attorney Geeta Kapur, who regularly represents poor children and adults, spoke about the school-to-prison pipeline – a cycle in which students who don’t fare well in classrooms likely end up incarcerated. She said poverty puts children at a huge educational disadvantage. That is especially an issue for black children, who are four times more likely to be born poor and stay poor, she said.
“We can almost go into a Kindergarten class and predict who is going to end up in prison,” she said.
Kapur believes the zero tolerance policies used by many school systems are not always sound, as suspensions and expulsions are doled out for minor offenses like cell phone usages, arguing with teachers and fighting.
Black youth are several times more likely to be suspended, 19 times more likely to expelled and make up almost half the cases in the state’s juvenile courts. Those who enter the juvenile court system are four times more likely to drop out of school.
Kapur also spoke out against the state’s recent education cuts and the slashing of 7,500 slots from the state’s pre-kindergarten program.
Democracy North Carolina Director Bob Hall touted King’s strong voting advocacy as he discussed voting rights.
“Dr. King, he says the ballot … is the ticket to first class citizenship; without the ballot we’re second class citizens,” Hall said. “We have to use the ballot because it’s a tool of empowerment; that’s what he called it.”
Hall said that the state had high voter participation until Jim Crow era restrictions like literacy tests were put in place. It took a while for voter turnout to kick-in after such obstacles were eliminated. Hall said voter participation “finally made it” in 2012, when because of measures like same-day registration, North Carolina was among the top 12 states in voter turnout.
Now, the GOP-controlled General Assembly has eliminated same-day registration, shortened the early voting period and is requiring residents to show a form of identification before they can vote. Hall said it will take work – including making sure all residents have identification so that they can cast votes – to make sure these setbacks won’t turn back the clock on voter turnout. He urged the audience to volunteer to help get out the vote.
Rev. Dr. John Mendez, a well-known activist and pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church, encouraged attendees to stand with the NC NAACP as it once again starts a new slate of Moral Monday protests. Mendez, who was arrested in the state capitol building last year during one of the protests, said the movement has caught fire, attracting thousands to Raleigh to protest the direction the Republicans have taken the state.
“We are in a struggle for democracy,” Mendez said.
Cynthia Dixon was among the 150 or so who listened from the audience. She said she liked to vary her King Day activities each year and was glad she chose the Ministers Conference’s program this year.
“It was awesome,” said Dixon, a teacher and associate minister at First Waughtown Baptist. “It rekindled the fire and the passion to promote human rights and programs for equality and justice.”