Why A Day For King? Because We Never Learn - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Why A Day For King? Because We Never Learn

January 18th, 2019 SanTan Sun News
Why A Day For King? Because We Never Learn

By Gary Nelson


She is too young to remember when the Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and slaughtered four little girls.

Too young to remember when the Klan – again, the Klan – murdered three civil rights workers and dumped their bodies into the guts of an earthen dam in Mississippi.

Too young, even, to remember that night in Memphis when a bullet ended the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and set the nation on fire.

But not too young to remember June 17, 2015, when a racist shot nine people to death in a Charleston, S.C., church.

Nor to remember when the president had kind words for the white supremacists whose rally in Charlottesville, Va., led to the death of a counter-protester in 2017.

Nor to remember the Sabbath massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue only this past October.

You don’t have to be old to remember when America’s simmering caldron of racist and religious hatred has spat forth yet another sickening atrocity.

All you have to do is read the headlines.

And so, Keisha McKinnor, born in the very year of King’s assassination, decided to pick up the banner of human dignity and fly it high over the once-segregated East Valley.

The East Valley, segregated? Why, yes – that’s why the Mesa Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee, of which McKinnor is president, operates out of a tiny old house in a part of town that used to be set aside only for blacks and Hispanics.

The Alston House, where Mesa’s first black doctor lived and worked, is the wellspring of activity for an MLK committee that McKinnor is hoping to reorganize into a year-round presence in the community.

McKinnor wasn’t born into this sort of activism. But then, in a way she was, growing up in a racially polarized Chicago where people of one color learned early in life that it wasn’t wise to cross into the other color’s part of town after dark.

That – and the sometimes subtle personal reminders she received along life’s course that racism is not yet dead in America – eventually led her out of the business world and onto the front lines of the war against hatred.

The Tempe resident migrated from a career in corporate philanthropy with PetSmart to the civil rights field in 2015. That’s when she began working for the Anti-Defamation League, for which she now serves as assistant regional director of the Arizona branch. The organization was founded in 1913 to fight anti-Semitism but over the years has addressed wider issues of civil rights.

McKinnor got involved in the King committee when that organization contacted ADL for help in organizing its 2018 commemoration.

For now, the committee has actually pared back its programming, focusing primarily on the Jan. 21 parade in downtown Mesa. A community breakfast that the group used to sponsor has gone by the wayside.

But more is coming.

“We decided last year we were going to put a halt to some of the activities until we regroup and restructure and work on our mission and sustainability for the organization,” McKinnor said. “It is extremely important that we do events like this not just on his birthday but do programming all year long that is going to speak to the life and legacy of Dr. King.”

That’s important, she said, because of America’s penchant for historical amnesia.

She said she recently spoke with a group of young people at Arizona State University and while most of them said they were familiar with King, few could describe his life and work.

The matter takes on special urgency, McKinnor said, in today’s political environment.

“The racial tensions in our country – I think it’s going backwards,” she said. “There are lots of people that have been emboldened to speak and act with hatred. That’s not acceptable. It should not be acceptable today.”

One symptom of that: In early December the Arizona branch of the Anti-Defamation league reported an “alarming and disturbing” increase in swastikas found around the state. Typically, one is reported per month in Arizona; by Dec. 11 there already had been six.

Carlos Galindo-Elvira, the league’s regional director, told KTAR News that the group recorded 26 anti-Semitic incidents in Arizona in 2017, compared with 10 the previous year.

“We never want a swastika to be normalized,” Galindo-Elvira said. “It is a hate symbol. It represents a horrific period in world history.”

In addition to widely publicized episodes of one-on-one racism, civil libertarians have been alarmed by official efforts to roll back protections that were codified in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

In December, for example, Betsy DeVos, the U.S. secretary of education, abolished guidelines that the Obama administration had issued to address the disproportionate punishment of non-white schoolchildren.

In other areas, phony claims of voter fraud have been used in efforts to keep minority voters away from the polls.

McKinnor believes there always has been a strong current of resistance to the civil rights victories that sprang from the movement in the 1950s and ’60s.

That was partly reflected in opposition to the King holiday itself.

Arizona voters rejected the holiday in 1990, only to change their minds two years later in the face of a national boycott and the loss of a previously scheduled Super Bowl.

Mesa voters approved a paid King holiday for city workers in 1992, but the margin of victory was only 1,190 out of more than 74,500 ballots cast.

To McKinnor, the fragility of American freedoms speaks to the need for constant vigilance.

“With the climate our country is in, we need to continue to fight for our rights and not take anything for granted,” she said.

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