TRAVERSE CITY — Alex Bondar and Marshall R. Collins, Jr., weren’t born yet when Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to demand voting rights for black Americans.

Now the two northwestern Michigan residents are joining new generations of Americans to speak out for civil rights. They’re taking part in demonstrations to protest the recent deaths of two black men at the hands of police and they’re marching in Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations.

“It’s time for people with good hearts to speak up and take a stand,” said Collins, of Northport. “It’s not just getting out and holding a picket sign. It’s understanding and compassion and love for others.”

A new generation

Bondar was born 30 years after the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and grew up in the predominantly white metropolitan Detroit “country town” of Armada.

She, like others of her generation, sometimes heard the “n” word without the “r” and saw un-“funny” videos online suggesting how certain people should be treated.

“When I was in high school there wasn’t a lot of discussion about race,” said Bondar, a student at Northwestern Michigan College. “We didn’t have a lot of people of color but we had some. If you look different, you’re going to get bullied. And that’s what happened to them.”

Her first serious discussion of race took place in her senior year world history class, the beginning of a turning point in her life. In 2013, after she joined NMC’s Student Life staff as a student worker, “my predecessor opened my mind to what social justice is,” she said. “Then I started researching a lot on my own.”

The events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, were a call to action, said Bondar. She was “so outraged” that she and fellow NMC student Erica Smith organized a peaceful community demonstration called “And JUSTICE for ALL: TC Rally for #Ferguson.”

The Dec. 5 event to show support for those protesting in Ferguson and elsewhere across the country attracted about 100 people, including Betsy Coffia, a recently-defeated State Representative candidate. It also launched the group Northwest Michigan Social Justice to enhance the discussion and awareness of social justice and to create related area events.

Now the group is organizing a Jan. 19 Martin Luther King Jr. Day March in downtown Traverse City. Participants will sing spiritual and protest songs, including “We Shall Overcome,” in an echo of King and his supporters.

“If something puts another person down for their color, that to me is racism,” said Bondar, who experienced racism herself while working in predominantly black Brazil last summer. “It doesn’t just happen in little country towns. It happens everywhere.”

Speaking out

Collins is more than just “a black man,” so he usually keeps his thoughts about race and racism to himself. But after reading social media comments claiming Michael Brown’s death “served him right” and that “he got what he deserved,” Collins knew it was time to speak out.

“What he did was wrong, and I totally agree to that. But he was just a young kid in his teens,” said the social studies and health teaching consultant for the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District. “Everyone has done something wrong and we had an opportunity to right the wrong, change that path. He didn’t have that opportunity.”

Collins joined the TC Rally for Ferguson and will be the guest speaker after Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day march. He and his family believe the holiday is not just a day off, but a day that should be celebrated.

“I’ve been saying it for years: We have to remember the struggle, we have to remember where we came from,” said the Northport native and son of the late Rev. Marshall Collins, who is credited with helping break the barriers between area Hispanics, whites, blacks and Native Americans. “That’s what I want to instill in my kids.

“There’s an attitude of, ‘We’re not responsible for what happened 100 years ago, we’re not responsible for what happened 50 years ago.’ You can make a change. When you have that kind of attitude, you’re not helping us out.”

Collins was born in 1976 and attended Northport High School, one of the few black students there. That’s partly why he became interested in African-American studies, reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and “Native Son” and focusing both his junior and senior projects on the subject.

“We have come a long ways but there’s still road to be traveled,” he said, noting that he still is sometimes pulled over in traffic in what he believes is racial profiling. “There’s just so many people out there who don’t get it. They don’t understand. And those people who don’t get it and don’t understand are raising kids who don’t get it and don’t understand unless they have different interactions with people.”

Continuing the fight

Dean Robb is one who gets it. The activist attorney from Suttons Bay saw how unfairly blacks were treated in the Navy during World War II, and saw even more discrimination while attending law school at Wayne State University.

He was living and practicing in Detroit in 1961 when he began helping a group called Friends of the South. Members organized civil rights attorneys, mostly from Detroit, to help get Freedom Riders and other civil rights activists out of jail, challenge illegal arrests and work with southern lawyers and civil rights organizations.

In 1963 Robb organized the first interracial conference of southern and northern lawyers in Atlanta, a conference King spoke at shortly after he was released from a Birmingham, Alabama, jail. Robb’s law firm also was the first to have a black partner, George Crockett, another civil rights activist who later became a judge and a congressman.

Robb, now 90 and still practicing, said that while much has changed, much has not. So he wasn’t necessarily surprised by the events in Ferguson and Staten Island and the backlash they triggered.

“I’ve been feeling for a long time that racism and poverty are the biggest problems that we have as a people to change,” he said. “The discrimination of the police department against black citizens goes all the way back to slavery and the civil rights movement. There are two kinds of justice: there’s justice for black people and there’s justice for white people.”

He points to the book “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, which argues that the racial segregation laws and customs in place from the end of the Civil War to the modern civil rights movement have merely changed. Now they’re giving young blacks criminal records in a much higher proportion than whites, one of several factors leading to the recent protests.

“I’m not a sociologist and I’m not sure that I’m right on this,” he said. “But I think we’re on the tipping point. If you have this continuing disparity between the treatment of white and black, it reaches the boiling point and that’s when protests start. That’s what happened in the mid-’60s with the demonstrations and lunch counter sit-ins. People said, ‘That’s enough. We’ve had enough of second-class citizenship.’ And I guess this is the second boiling point in our lifetime.” new dialogue on race and race relations.

Once again Americans are taking to the streets, the courts — and to social media — to debate, demonstrate and demand justice for black citizens.

All of which makes this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 19, more significant than many in the past.

A new generation

Alex Bondar was born 30 years after the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and grew up in the predominantly white metropolitan Detroit “country town” of Armada.

She, like others of her generation, sometimes heard the “n” word without the “r” and saw un-“funny” videos online suggesting how certain people should be treated.

“When I was in high school there wasn’t a lot of discussion about race,” said Bondar, a student at Northwestern Michigan College. “We didn’t have a lot of people of color but we had some. If you look different, you’re going to get bullied. And that’s what happened to them.”

Her first serious discussion of race took place in her senior year world history class, the beginning of a turning point in her life. In 2013, after she joined NMC’s Student Life staff as a student worker, “my predecessor opened my mind to what social justice is,” she said. “Then I started researching a lot on my own.”

The events in Ferguson and Staten Island were a call to action, said Bondar, who was “so outraged” that she and fellow NMC student Erica Smith organized a peaceful community demonstration called “And JUSTICE for ALL: TC Rally for #Ferguson.”

The Dec. 5 event to show support for those protesting in Ferguson and elsewhere across the country attracted about 100 people, including Betsy Coffia a recently defeated State Representative candidate. It also launched Northwest Michigan Social Justice, a group created to enhance the discussion and awareness of social justice and to create related area events.

Now the group is organizing a Jan. 19 Martin Luther King, Jr., Day March in downtown Traverse City. Participants will sing spiritual and protest songs, including “We Shall Overcome,” in an echo of King and his supporters.

“If something puts another person down for their color, that to me is racism,” said Bondar, who experienced racism herself while working in predominantly black Brazil last summer. “It doesn’t just happen in little country towns. It happens everywhere.”

Speaking out

Marshall R. Collins, Jr., is more than just “a black man,” so he usually keeps his thoughts about race and racism to himself. But after reading social media comments claiming Michael Brown’s death “served him right” and that “he got what he deserved,” Collins knew it was time to speak out.

“What he did was wrong, and I totally agree to that. But he was just a young kid in his teens,” said the social studies and health teaching consultant for the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District. “Everyone has done something wrong and we had an opportunity to right the wrong, change that path. He didn’t have that opportunity.”

Collins joined the TC Rally for Ferguson and will be the guest speaker after Monday’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Day March. He and his family believe the holiday is not just a day off, but a day that should be celebrated.

“I’ve been saying it for years: We have to remember the struggle, we have to remember where we came from,” said the Northport native and son of the late Rev. Marshall Collins, who is credited with helping break the barriers between area Hispanics, whites, blacks and Native Americans. “That’s what I want to instill in my kids.

“There’s an attitude of, ‘We’re not responsible for what happened 100 years ago, we’re not responsible for what happened 50 years ago.’ You can make a change. When you have that kind of attitude, you’re not helping us out.

“It’s time for people with good hearts to speak up and take a stand.”

Collins was born in 1976 and attended Northport High School, one of the few black students there. That’s partly why he became interested in African-American studies, reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and “Native Son” and focusing both his junior and senior projects on the subject.

“We have come a long ways but there’s still road to be traveled,” he said, noting that he is still sometimes pulled over in traffic in what he believes is racial profiling. “There’s just so many people out there who don’t get it. They don’t understand. And those people who don’t get it and don’t understand are raising kids who don’t get it and don’t understand unless they have different interactions with people.”

Continuing the fight

Dean Robb is one who gets it. The activist attorney from Suttons Bay saw how unfairly blacks were treated in the Navy during World War II, and saw even more discrimination while attending law school at Wayne State University.

He was living and practicing in Detroit in 1961 when he began helping a group called Friends of the South. Members organized civil rights attorneys, mostly from Detroit, to help get Freedom Riders and other civil rights activists out of jail, challenge illegal arrests and work with southern lawyers and civil rights organizations.

In 1963 Robb organized the first interracial conference of southern and northern lawyers in Atlanta, a conference King spoke at shortly after he was released from a Birmingham, Alabama, jail. Robb’s law firm also was the first to have a black partner, George Crockett, another civil rights activist who later became a judge and a congressman.

Robb, now 90 and still practicing, said that while much has changed, much has not. So he wasn’t necessarily surprised by the events in Ferguson and Staten Island and the backlash they triggered.

“I’ve been feeling for a long time that racism and poverty are the biggest problems that we have as a people to change,” he said. “The discrimination of the police department against black citizens goes all the way back to slavery and the civil rights movement. There are two kinds of justice: there’s justice for black people and there’s justice for white people.”

He points to the book “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, which argues that the racial segregation laws and customs in place from the end of the Civil War to the modern civil rights movement have merely changed. Now they’re giving young blacks criminal records in a much higher proportion than whites, one of several factors leading up to the recent protests.

“I’m not a sociologist and I’m not sure that I’m right on this,” he said. “But I think we’re on the tipping point. If you have this continuing disparity between the treatment of white and black, it reaches the boiling point and that’s when protests start. That’s what happened in the mid-’60s with the demonstrations and lunch counter sit-ins. People said, ‘That’s enough. We’ve had enough of second class citizenship.’ And I guess this is the second boiling point in our lifetime.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day events

9 a.m. - “To Kill a Mockingbird,” State Theatre; free*

1962 classic starring Gregory Peck, adapted from Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a single father lawyer who defends a falsely accused black man.

10 a.m.-5 p.m. - Peace Day 2015! Celebrate our Differences, Great Lakes Children’s Museum; $6, 3 and older*

Hands-on peace and cultural diversity exploration activities and special story times. Learn about three different cultures, explore what it would be like to look like someone else, learn the word for “peace” in different languages, visit the “I Have a Dream” Imagination Station.

11 a.m.-3 p.m. - Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Drop-in Craft, Traverse City District Library, Main Branch; free*

Create and share your dream on your own “Dream Cloud” to be displayed throughout February.

1 p.m., 4 p.m., 7 p.m., 10 p.m. - “Selma,” Carmike Horizon Cinemas; admission

A chronicle of Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr.’s campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.

3:30-5:30 p.m. - Martin Luther King Jr. Day March; free

Meet at 3:30 p.m. outside State Theatre for March and Sing, followed by remarks by Marshall R. Collins Jr. and Michael Moore, State Theatre.

5:30 p.m. - Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration - Live in Concert: Motown Legends Gospel Choir with the NMC Children’s Choir Cantus ensemble, State Theatre; free*

Preceded by mayoral proclamation and invocation by area clergy. 

*Part of “Embrace the Dream,” January-March, a series of films, exhibitions, lectures, music and hands-on art programs that inspire social justice and equality for all people. For a full list of events, visit www.embracethedream.org

Free tickets for State Theatre events are available at the State Theatre box office or by calling 231-947-3446.

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