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Leaders: Community still facing challenges, inequalities

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A tip of the hat to this nation’s progress toward advancing civil rights was tempered Monday by the reality of just how much work remains.

More than 200 people who included community, political and church leaders gathered in the Columbus East High School cafeteria for the annual Community Breakfast program to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which honors the civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968.

Local events were tied to President Barack Obama’s public inauguration ceremony. Many of the same themes Obama mentioned — for example, the need for equality regardless of race, ethnicity or gender — were King-inspired themes also vocalized by local speakers Monday.

Mayor Kristen Brown spoke to the breakfast audience about J. Irwin Miller’s vision for Columbus to embrace its diversity as a means to enrich the community. Miller, the late philanthropist and former leader of Cummins Inc., served in the 1960s as president of the World Council of Churches and was a leading voice in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

IUPUC award winners

IUPUC recognized InterFaith Forum Columbus and Carol Kostrzewsky, coordinator of career services at IUPUC, with its 2013 Excellence in Diversity Awards during Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday.

InterFaith Forum Columbus was recognized for its diverse focus on education and spirituality. It facilitates programming to explore different faiths and traditions, diversity education, conflict resolution and coexistence among people of all religions.

Kostrzewsky, staff adviser for IUPUC’s Gay-Straight Alliance, was recognized for furthering greater awareness and understanding of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and related issues among students, faculty and staff.

She credited Miller’s vision for much of what Columbus has become today.

David Bosley, pastor of Dayspring Church of God, read a poem that drove home the point that an oppressed person cannot remain oppressed forever, and that the willingness to step out from the crowd is what made many of this nation’s leaders great and helped transform the country.

He said going along with the status quo guarantees nothing will change.

But the speakers acknowledged that this community and nation have come a long way in its acceptance of minorities, even as they acknowledged challenges ahead.

Lorraine Smith, director of the Columbus Human Rights Commission and the first black female department head for the city, talked about women’s progress in politics and the workplace.

For example, she mentioned that more women are serving in the U.S. Senate than at any time in the nation’s history.

Nationally, she praised Ella Baker, a political activist and member of the King-led Southern Leadership Conference, and Constance Motley, the first black woman to be appointed as a federal judge, for furthering the cause of civil rights.

Locally, she made note of Brown, only the second woman to hold the position of mayor in Columbus.

Smith also related her own experiences about the ongoing struggle of civil rights. She told about how her mother, who died when Smith was young, risked her life by attending a church to hear King speak in Vicksburg, Miss. — but wouldn’t let Smith come with her because of bombing threats someone had made.

Smith predicted King eventually would have latched onto the cause of women’s rights if he had lived long enough. He said the cause of civil rights for all races as well as the female gender were bound to intersect as part of the same discussion.

Smith said it’s obvious that work remains, despite the strides. She said that although equal pay for equal work has improved for women since the 1960s compared with men, women still only make about 77 cents compared to each dollar men earn for similar responsibilities. She said local school programs, such as the Busy Bees Academy for preschool students, must continue because of the opportunities it gives people of limited means.

Breakfast attendees praised the program after it dismissed.

William Harmon said he appreciated hearing about the equality struggles of the 1960s, which gave him a better perspective to appreciate how far things have come since then. He said he thought the program drove home the strides the county has made and what challenges lie ahead.

Diane Clancy, principal of Columbus Signature Academy — Fodrea campus, said the program impacted her because it put things in historical perspective. She said she especially appreciated how Smith showed the impact of civil rights on the changing role of women in business and politics.

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