Civil rights activists: Martin Luther King's battle far from over

Freedomways magazine cofounder Esther Cooper Jackson in her Clinton Hill home (Photo: Deidre Schoo)

The nation Monday honors Martin Luther King Jr., whose quest for equality has inspired new generations even as leaders of the civil rights movement acknowledge how far America has left to go.

King would be proud of advances in race relations — especially the milestone election of Barack Obama — but the economic crisis and other recent struggles highlight enduring disparities in race and class, the leaders agreed.

“There’s a very strong element in country that’s ready to throw everybody else overboard, and it does have some racial and ethnic overtones,” said Major Owens, a former Brooklyn congressman who joined King’s 1965 Bloody Sunday march.

Four activists who worked with and were inspired by King spoke with amNewYork about his lasting legacy.

The politician
Owens rose from a community organizer to become a U.S. congressman in 1982. Today, political infighting threatens to undo King’s work, said Owens, 73, of Prospect Heights.

“There’s a nastiness that has reached a crescendo in the last few months around the health care legislation, of people who are saying we don’t care if others live or die,” said the former Black Congressional Caucus member. Attention should be refocused on poor and voiceless constituents, Owens said.

The airman
Roscoe C. Brown was forced to serve separately in the Air Force with the legendary Tuskagee Airmen.

“It’s like night and day,” said Brown, 87, of the changes in society. “I grew up in a segregated society where blacks were excluded from schools, where they had to sit in the backs of the buses.”

Brown attended the 1963 March on Washington, D.C., led by King. “He had a very commanding personality, he was a thoughtful person and, of course, when he spoke, he rattled the windows,” said Brown, of Riverdale, also a CUNY TV host.

The journalist
Esther Cooper Jackson, co-founder of Freedomways, a magazine that promoted integration and included works by King, encourages young people to serve their communities.

Some are losing sight of what is important, focusing on celebrities rather than the “real heroes of our struggle,” Jackson said. The 92-year-old Clinton Hill resident has most recently been the subject of a short film, “Fighting for Justice.”

The artist
“Some people will decide based on your race, what it is you can or cannot do, that’s unfortunate and that persists, that’s not over,” said Faith Ringgold, an artist and author who created the “Dream 2: King and the Sisterhood” quilt.

The 79-year-old Harlem native was one of the few black female students at City College of New York in the 1950s. She struggled in the art world, which was largely unmoved though King’s influence was rocking the political world, she said.

“People are desperate to change the description of racism in America because it’s such an awful story,” Ringgold said. “Post-racial? It’s not post-anything.”

*****

Generations apart from leaders of the civil rights movement, Jonathan Rosenberg is CEO of Repair the World, a midtown-based organization that encourages service in Jewish communities. Rosenberg, 42, is a 2010 MLK ambassador of service, an honor shared this year with NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, actor Edward Norton, NFL legend Emmitt Smith and others.

The King holiday is a chance “to serve communally, as a pluralistic community, as an interfaith community, as an intercultural community — to kind of exemplify the best of what our country can be,” Rosenberg said.

emily.ngo@am-ny.com

Tags: Martin Luther King Jr. , Major Owens , Roscoe C. Brown , civil rights , Repair the World

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