The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream remains elusive, even in an age when a black president leads the country and people celebrate and remember King’s legacy with a federal holiday.
That was the Rev. Mike Harris’ message Monday as keynote speaker at the 17th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Community Breakfast at Columbus North High School, attended by more than 300 people.
Harris is pastor of Faith, Hope and Love Church of God in Christ in Elizabethtown. A Kentucky native, he has lived in Bartholomew County for 40 years.
Monday’s holiday honors King for his work as a civil rights leader and minister.
King was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn. Wednesday would have been his 85th birthday.
Using a theme of “Rise Up! Restore the Dream,” Harris gave personal observations about issues he believes still need attention to make King’s dream of equality a reality.
But he also extended kudos to organizations such as the Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County for its intensive work in making the community more welcoming to diverse people.
Harris said there are issues of prejudice to overcome.
He said he has been followed closely by sales associates in local stores, thinking they might be wondering if he’s a thief. “Little do they know, I’m just looking for my wife,” Harris said.
He mentioned he notices local women pull their purses closer to them when he gets on an elevator with them and then joked that it is unlikely he could outrun anyone as a purse snatcher.
Relationships with area police and school leaders also need work, according to leaders in the black community.
Black youth still claim they sometimes are unfairly arrested, “and we in the black community don’t always understand the circumstances surrounding those arrests,” Harris said.
Columbus Police Chief Jason Maddix, who was in the audience, said he was surprised by such comments. Maddix said he and other police personnel have worked extra hard to make sure their relationship with the black community is excellent.
“I was personally devastated by his comments,” Maddix said, adding that Harris and others have his cellphone number and have been invited to call when there are problems. “We have a very open line of communication, and my door always is open.”
Maddix said the department’s public safety academy regularly features a highly diverse group of residents learning about the department and also expressing their concerns about local police protection.
Harris also said school discipline issues involving black students last year could have been addressed better with parents and black leaders. Improved communication, which he said is being tackled, could have avoided some problems altogether, he said.
Bartholomew Consolidated Superintendent John Quick said that the role of school diversity coordinator Tony McClendon, a part-time pastor like Harris and a leader in the black community, is designed to address such situations.
“The number (of disciplined students who are black) is not at all disproportionate,” Quick said. “Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some room for improvement. And I also think there is some room to highlight some of the strides we have made through the years.”
Harris also said he has heard racial slurs yelled at him in the past. “All of us together have got to overcome things like that,” he said.
Mayor Kristen Brown said it’s significant that the Columbus Human Rights Commission was formed in 1962, two years before the national Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“This speaks volumes about this community’s intolerance of racial injustice,” Brown said.
The program highlighted elements of King’s life and also that of Nelson Mandela, the former South African president who fought to end apartheid. Mandela died last month at age 95.
Leaders of local foundations, school principals, clergy and other community leaders attended the breakfast.
Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. students, who had the day off, also were in the crowd. Among them was Smith Elementary School fifth-grader Aiesha Nkrumah, who said she always can learn more about King’s fight for equality for all people.
“But I also realized that it’s fun just to be a part of all this,” she said.
Even a closing song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” reflected the tone and tenor of King’s passion. In part the crowd sang:
“Lift every voice and sing/’Til earth and heaven ring/Ring with the harmonies/Of liberty.”