Nearly 49 years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, cities across America will honor his vision and sacrifice Monday.
The city of Biloxi, other municipalities and organizations such as the MLK Jr. Coast-wide Celebration Committee have a full slate of events to commemorate King’s contributions to economic and social justice, not to mention racial harmony.
But how far have we come?
Racial inclusion in Mississippi has had a complicated history. The state enacted 22 Jim Crow statutes and a law restricting voting rights between 1865 and 1956. Three segregation laws were passed after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
That history bubbled to the surface again last year, when the legislature voted to keep the state flag, despite the fact that its Confederate imagery represents a symbol of racism and hatred to many black Americans.
In 2015, the median wage for black workers in Mississippi was 72 percent of the median wage for white workers. In dollars, that means black workers earn an average $4.65 less per hour than white workers.
More black residents are in poverty than any other race, according to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, and “significant educational disparities exist between the black and white populations within the state,” a recent Jesuit Social Research Institute concluded.
At the national level, as 2017 digs in, President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, will leave office Jan. 20. In his place, Donald Trump, whom some minority groups and organizations see as divisive, has inflamed the already turbulent topic of race in America.
Prominent black Coastians, for many of those reasons, said the issue of race is always close to the surface.
Ahead of the parades, church services and speeches, a few gave their thoughts on where we were, where we are and where we need to be in the area of race relations and economic and social justice.
None used race as a dividing line in their professional capacities. Instead, they said they aim for a better world for everyone.
‘Long ways to go’
Ella Holmes-Hines, the first woman elected to Gulfport City Council in 1997, has lived her whole life on the Coast.
Her respect for King begins with his devotion to God. That’s where he learned to fight darkness, she said.
“He gave his life first to the Lord. He learned about what it takes to fight hate, to fight darkness.”
She put a spin on one of King’s most cited quotations: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that,” King wrote in his book “Strength to Love.”
“Improvement comes when darkness cannot drive out light and hate cannot drive out love,” Holmes-Hines said.
She acknowledged the state’s history.
“The progression and history of the state is one that the only way you can acknowledge your history is to learn from it,” she said. “Mississippi has a long ways to go.”
Because the state relies heavily on federal funding, she said, state leaders should be less inclined to stand apart from the rest of the country, as they have with the Affordable Care Act and its accompanying Medicaid expansion. More Mississippians would have health insurance if the state expanded Medicaid and many will lose the insurance they have with the repeal of the ACA, she said.
“All states have an issue with poverty and health insurance, but we do specifically because we rely on so much federal funding. It doesn’t make sense to have a problem and a way to fix the problem, and then to ignore both,” she said.
A religious woman, she said she’ll pray for Trump. But her concerns loom large.
“Our first African-American president gave a great deal of hope to many. Now we’re looking at President-elect Trump, who has been extremely contentious. We hope he’ll represent all of America, tone down the rhetoric and understand that to our sons and daughters, words matter.”
She looks to the next generation to make a difference as she has but sees a lot of natives leaving Mississippi after graduation.
“There are people determined to stay in our state to improve it,” she said. “Many do not stay. We hope to turn that around, to keep our kids in our state to improve it.”
Race is always close to the surface
Richmond Vincent Jr., recently appointed president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of South Mississippi, said one of his long-term goals is to eliminate poverty. Goodwill plays a vital role in that ambitious end. The organization helps residents with education and job training.
“The MLK holiday is a great opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been and where we need to go. For me it’s paramount.”
Vincent said he takes his cues from King, because he sought to improve the quality of life not just for black Americans but for everyone.
“I think it’s everyone’s responsibility if an injustice has occurred,” he said. “Justice is justice. When you really listen or read Martin Luther King, you learn he spoke for every single man, woman and child. It always was about everyone.”
Aware of Mississippi’s contentious history around race, Vincent, who moved to Gulfport for his position less than two weeks ago, said he believes he’s in the right spot. He emphasized he’s not an advocate or an activist.
“I think it’s great to be here in Mississippi. Let’s take that history and let’s evolve into being one of the leaders in racial harmony,” he said.
Fallout of Great Americans Day tweet
State Rep. Jeramey Anderson, D-Moss Point, the youngest black legislator elected in the state, released a statement in response to the city of Biloxi tweeting “Great Americans Day” in place of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Anderson said he was glad to see a conversation begin, but toward that end he added: “There are a lot of things in our local communities that need to be undone to put Mississippi on a more progressive path to the future. It will definitely take citizens being more involved in local government as well as state for us to get there.”