Eugene Weekly : Notes from the Riverside : 1.15.09

Reality Check
MLK Day is an opportunity for examination
by Mark Harris

For me, every new year in Eugene is a reality check. I’m minded to recall two phrases spoken around rivers in Africa by those not in a state of denial: “What goes around comes around,” and ”What you have done to the least of these you’ve done to me.” 

In particular, community celebrations of Dr. King’s birthday become a kind of zeitgeist barometer.  One of the earliest grassroots celebrations continues, with HONEY (Honoring Our New Ethnic Youth) having its celebration from 9 to 11 pm Saturday, Jan. 17, at Cozmic Pizza. The Lane County Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration returns to the Hult Center where it began, with a keynote speaker whose work constantly reminds us to stand for children, that they may suffer less.  

Jonah Edelman is the co-founder and executive director of Stand for Children, a children’s advocacy organization based in Portland. One of the country’s leading voices for children, Edelman has drawn inspiration from civil rights leaders, including his mother, Marian Wright Edelman, in creating a politically influential grassroots movement for children. Under Jonah Edelman’s leadership, Stand for Children members have won 80 victories affecting more than three million children.

Stand for Children is an innovative nonprofit advocacy group that harnesses citizen commitment to affect political decisions and elections in order to get results for children. Beginning with his organizing Stand for Children Day in Washington, D.C., where 300,000 people made it the largest rally for children in American history, Edelman helped the organization grow in influence, changing the lives of over a million children and families.

Other events happening around town that same day: At 10 am, a march begins at Moshofsky Center at Autzen Stadium and ends at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. At noon, there’s an unveiling of a Rosa Parks commemorative sculpture  at LTD Eugene Station. And from 2 pm to 4 pm, there’s a Springfield MLK Celebration at Springfield Middle School. 

As a zeitgeist barometer for Eugene, the Hult Center itself has been a focal point from before its inception. Its ground from the 1920s through the 1980s has variously been the showcase for movies supportive of the organizing Eugene Klan #3 (The Face at Your Window, The Ku Klux Klan Rides Again at the Eugene/Heilig Theater); a gathering point for innocent Japanese-American citizens on their way to WWII concentration/internment camps; and three consecutive African-American related events which received bomb threats emptying the Hult Center attendees into the streets (Ethiopian Famine Relief, two MLK celebrations). 

Being raised in the heart of Southern California, by two Southerners, I’ve come to appreciate my upbringing in a geographical black community, one that has a sense of its history, especially its hidden history. Oregon is a Southern state in the Northwest, and it is appropriate we recognize national level civil rights leaders here and recognize local historical and ongoing civil rights struggle right here in Eugene. We note, of course, that gains are won at the cost of resistance, which not so much fades but goes unreported. 

Case in point: Oxfam America’s 1985 Heart of Oregon’s Pledge to Ethiopia, a fundraising event in which phone pledges were taken to send money to famine stricken Ethiopia. Arzenia Richardson (longtime KLCC Jazz Sunday host at the time) took a phone call and told me what he told The Register-Guard: The caller said he planted a bomb because he didn’t like the fact they were “raising money for niggers in Africa.” The R-G reported the little white lie that “The caller was concerned the event wasn’t raising money for Oregon children.” Arzenia told me that the caller never once mentioned Oregon children as a concern, and that of course he gave the direct quote, disturbing as it was, because it indicated the presence of an ongoing community constituent voice — one that was repeated at early Hult MLK celebrations featuring two of Dr. King’s children. Having been present at all three of those events myself, and recalling several attempts to name a street after Dr. King, I have observed the winds of progress and resistance as well as the fog of obfuscation that rises after the cold reign of denial moves in. 

Celebrations, street names and sculpture are barometric indicators of change in the spiritual weather, but can one say the climate is warm and hospitable? Mmm, still chilly. 

Mark Harris of Eugene is an instructor in ethnic studies and substance abuse prevention at LCC. 



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