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Struggles Still Exist: Local leaders reflect on progress

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Bartholomew County has slowly embraced the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision for racial, ethnic and gender equality, according to local civic leaders who will participate in Columbus memorial events Monday to honor the slain civil rights leader.

But many of those same participants agree that people’s attitudes still have a long way to go before they catch up with factors that have made Bartholomew County a melting pot of diversity.

On Monday, the discussion will continue with free public events that will fill bellies, fill minds and even offer theatrical entertainment in a way organizers hope will help people understand the challenge at hand.

The events include the Community Breakfast and presentation at Columbus East High School, panel discussions at the Columbus Learning Center and Second Baptist Church, a Rosa Parks play at The Commons and a midday viewing of the televised inauguration of President Barack Obama.

“We’re hoping a lot of people come out,” said Frank Griffin, a member of the Columbus area chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “We need to continue reminding ourselves what this day is about.”

Lorraine Smith, director of the Columbus Human Rights Commission, will be the featured speaker at the Community Breakfast that morning. She plans to talk about the rise of women in high-power executive and political positions. Today, more women occupy U.S. Senate seats than at any time in history. Closer to home, Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown won office a year ago.

But Smith also will talk about how far women have to go to achieve parity with men on multiple fronts, including power and pay levels.

She said the same struggles exist for minorities in general. The question of whether Columbus is truly an accepting community, she said, really depends on whom you ask.

“I think we’ve made strides, but we haven’t realized King’s total vision yet,” Smith said. “If even one group thinks we’re not welcoming here, then that’s a real problem.”

U.S. Census statistics show the percentage of minorities, particularly Hispanics, living in Bartholomew County has risen sharply in the past 20 years. In 1990, just 0.7 percent of the public was Hispanic and 1.6 percent was black. By 2010, the Hispanic population had risen to 6.2 percent while the black population had risen slightly to 1.85 percent.

Sandra Miles, IUPUC’s chief diversity officer, who has organized a 10:30 a.m. Monday panel discussion at the Learning Center, 4555 Central Ave., said acceptance has come a long way since King’s time in the 1960s.

Miles said that as diversity grows, so too does the likelihood that residents will come to know people of other backgrounds better. Her hope is that when schoolchildren become adults, they will pass on their accepting views to their own children, making the public even more accepting.

But some things work against that dynamic. Miles said that’s why the Learning Center panel discussion will focus partly on the paradox between this country electing its first African-American president and a national rise in hate crimes. The FBI reported a 50 percent jump in hate crimes against Muslims in 2010, while hate crimes against blacks have fallen slightly every year since 2008, when Obama was elected.

“Some people look at the change as threatening and might take that out on others,” Miles said. “As long as there are people out there who aren’t as accepting, hate crimes will happen.”

Mike Harris, pastor of Faith Hope and Love Church in Christ in Elizabethtown, who helped organize a 6 p.m. Monday panel discussion at Second Baptist Church, 1325 Reed St., said he sees major improvement in this community.

Harris said Brown seems genuinely interested in the well-being of minorities, as is Police Chief Jason Maddix, who has visited Harris’ church to talk about the role police can have to partner with the neighborhood to keep it safe.

But Harris added that the mere existence of exclusively — or near-exclusively — black or white churches indicates that something is still broken in Columbus and Bartholomew County.

Harris’ church is made up mostly of black people.

He said that although tradition plays a role in a church’s makeup, a truly accepting community that practices God’s word should transition over time to a diverse mix of people with the common goal of serving God and their fellow man.

“There’s always an opportunity to do better,” Harris said.

Harris’ son, Harvey Scrugg Jr., will be part of the Learning Center panel discussion, which is being put on by IUPUC. Scrugg said that although Bartholomew County still has work to do, he thinks things have improved noticeably in a short time.

A Kansas resident until five years ago, he said he occasionally heard racial comments when he visited Columbus. Since he moved here, he hasn’t noticed any racism and is confident his children aren’t experiencing any either.

Ryan Neville-Shepard, assistant professor of communication studies at IUPUC, who will participate in the Learning Center panel, said the United States has become more accepting of diversity since Obama took office four years ago. He said that acceptance extends today to the same-sex-marriage movement, which already has gained approval in several states.

“Presidents are clearly always part of a larger puzzle,” Neville-Shepard said, “but they also have the bully pulpit so they can re-frame and redefine what a civil right actually is.”

He said that influence from the top has a trickle-down effect on people even in Midwestern communities such as Columbus.

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