TRAVERSE CITY — “We shall overcome, because the arc of the moral universe is long,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, in a 1968 speech at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., “but it bends toward justice.”
Five days later, the Baptist minister and civil rights leader was assassinated.
In the five-plus decades since his murder, decision-makers, business owners and the news media — including here in northern Michigan — could have done more, rights activists say, to weigh the arc toward equality.
“If I was to be a reporter or an editor for MLK day, I would probably show the things that people don’t realize were happening,” said Tyasha Harrison, of Lake Ann. “People need to see those to understand where Black people are coming from, because they can’t empathize if they don’t understand.”
For example, after emancipation in 1863, African-Americans could still be enslaved if charged with a crime, many were, and the so-called “crimes” were often made up — “loitering” — just for that purpose.
In 1963, it was children, more than 2,000, many of them girls 14 to 17, who were arrested and jailed during a protest against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama.
Closer to home, in 1970, the Record-Eagle ran a wire service news story about King, not to detail the work supporters were continuing after his death, or efforts to investigate the events leading to his murder, but to report on infidelity accusations by the FBI.
In 1973, the Record-Eagle ran another wire service story, acknowledging the MLK Day holiday — on page 18, next to a column by Ann Landers — focusing not on King’s accomplishments but that the day was a work and school break for municipal workers and public school students.
“People of color have become used to being held to a higher standard,” Harrison said. “If it had been Black people rioting, they would not have made it to the lawn.”
Recent MLK Day coverage skimmed the surface of the racial inequities Harrison said played a role in the insurrection in Washington D.C. Jan. 6, when domestic terrorists attacked the Capitol, spurred on by President Donald Trump, who challenged votes in predominantly Black cities like Detroit.
Harrison, who is a member of Northern Michigan E3 — “educate, elevate, engage” — said setting aside a day to honor King, or highlighting Black history during the month of February, is a positive gesture but does little to promote lasting civil rights for Black, Indigenous and people of color.
There are local glimmers of positive change, she said.
Understanding Racial Justice is a 5-week introductory course, partially funded by Rotary Charities, for, as the course description states, “white people ready to lean into the racial justice movement.
Musician Seth Bernard, who founded Title Track, said a small group took the introductory course a year ago, and 150 people have since completed the training.
Registration is open for two online sessions, Tuesday evenings from 6 to 8 p.m. beginning Feb. 2, and Sunday afternoons from 3 to 5 p.m., beginning April 25.
The fee is based on a sliding scale, from $125 to $500.
“The response has been really positive,” Bernard said. “A lot of people sincerely want to do better, want to learn more, are curious and interested in racial equity being part of the fabric of the life we love up here.”
Phone calls and emails from entrepreneurs, students, human resources professionals and residents have come through Rotary Charities’ Covid-19 Crisis response team, from social media and from Title Track’s website, Bernard said.
“We’ve also had emails just out of the blue, for example this week I heard from a business interested in supporting clean water with a percentage of their sales, expressing that people of color have limited access to clean drinking water,” Bernard said.
Bernard and Harrison both said MLK Day was a positive gesture, and that year-round activities and learning focused on racial justice was a productive way to carry forward King’s work.
The State Theatre’s Virtual State is showing a 2017 documentary about writer James Baldwin’s loss of friends King and Malcolm X, “I Am Not Your Negro,” and a trailer is available on the theatre’s website, state.athomearts.org.
United Way of Northwest Michigan and community partner, TBA Credit Union, is sponsoring an MLK Week of Service offering MLK Day activity bags for kids available for curbside pick up at branch libraries in Traverse City, Kingsley, Interlochen. More information at unitedwaynwmi.org/mlk.
Northwestern Michigan College Student Success Center will screen the documentary, John Lewis: Good Trouble, on Zoom Jan. 19 at 7 p.m.. More information available on the group’s Facebook page.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation is sponsoring a National Day of Racial Healing, Jan. 19 and more information is available at healourcommunities.org.
The Michigan Community Services Commission is supporting 56 MLK Day projects from sewing child-size masks to distributing food to those who need it and a complete list of projects is available at Michigan.gov.