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Panelists: Rise of hate crimes tempers joy of inauguration

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Panelists painted a contrasting picture of triumph and struggle Monday during an event that explored a variety of topics, including the need to overcome misinformation in a technical age and the paradox of rising hate crimes despite the re-election of a black president.

Four panelists shared their opinions and answered questions during a discussion that drew about 150 people to the Columbus Learning Center for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Marwan Wafa, vice chancellor and dean of IUPUC, welcomed the audience at the beginning of the event by talking about a modern community’s need to embrace diversity in order to prosper. He said mutual respect is key for a welcoming environment — one that makes people of all backgrounds feel like they are truly part of the same community.

He called ignorance the worst enemy of mankind because it leads to people hating others and acting irrationally.

Panelist Jarvis Cooper, pastor of Faith Ministries church in Columbus, talked about how, as a teenager, he watched the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak and became determined to see people move past fear and hate.

Francis Jordan, deputy director for the Columbus Human Rights commission, talked in her opening remarks about the odd parallel between the election of Barack Obama and a rise in hate crimes across the country.

She said she believes a black man’s election to the high office gave racists a new reason to come forward, which has led to violence. But she also thinks the economic downturn has led to hate crimes because of the high competition for jobs that many white people think of as theirs alone.

Khaula Murtadha, associate vice chancellor of Life Long Learning at IUPUI, said she heard King speak in the 1960s and understood instantly that something powerful and earth-changing was afoot.

Ryan Neville-Shepard, the fourth panelist, an assistant professor of communication studies at IUPUC, talked about how the Founding Fathers’ declaration more than 200 years ago, that all men are created equal, was a promise that following generations have yet to realize.

Questions, most of which came from the panel moderator, IUPUC chief diversity officer Sandra Miles, covered many topics.

One question asked how false information spread on the Internet challenges the true meaning of King’s legacy.

Murtadha, Cooper and Neville-Shepard agreed that reading King’s original speeches is key to understanding him. However, Neville-Shephard said it also is important to turn to people who knew King, who are still around today and understand King’s vision and the vision of his movement.

Another question was about the fact many churches have congregations consisting almost entirely of one race — wondering whether that moves forward the goal of civil rights for all.

Cooper, Jordan and Murtadha agreed that a good church preaches love and acceptance of everyone, regardless of skin color. Cooper said the litmus test for whether a church is helping or hurting civil rights is to consider whether it is willing to take in others who are different from the majority.

A member of the audience questioned whether King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech characterizes the civil rights leader as a dreamer rather than someone who was an advocate for getting things done.

Murtadha pointed to other King speeches as evidence that King’s opinions expanded far beyond his most famous speech.

Cooper said the message of “I Have a Dream” should be heard as a launching pad for action.

Organized by IUPUC, the event ended with a televised viewing of President Barack Obama’s inaugural address live from Washington.

The audience applauded at times during the president’s address, particularly when Obama declared that the nation’s journey would not be complete until all women and homosexual couples are treated the same as other Americans under the law.

“I liked the tie-in with the inauguration,” said Mary Harmon about how the panelists’ discussion hit on many of the themes in Obama’s speech. “The whole event was informative.”

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