King's Struggle Is Remembered In Time of Economic Disparity
The legacy of a Baptist preacher who rose to prominence in a fight for racial equity was remembered this past Monday at Princeton University's Richardson Auditorium nearly 37 years after that same fight cost him his life.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a pillar in the Civil Rights Movement, a spiritual leader to his congregation, and a philosopher whose activist beliefs were aligned with Gandhi's example of non-violent protest and Thoreau's of civil disobedience, was remembered at the University's annual King Day celebration. Whereas presentations in the past have focused on the ideals put forth in his landmark "I Have a Dream" speech at a Washington, DC rally in 1963, this year's event recognized flaws in the country's class and economic structure that were commonly highlighted by Dr. King right up to his assassination in Memphis in April 1968.
The keynote presentation delivered by Yvonne Smith Segars, the New Jersey public defender, examined the national economic disparities leading to imbalance within the criminal justice and educational systems. Ms. Segars warned that while most "overt signs of racism are torn down," economic status "still gets in the way," leading to a difference in education and "denied opportunities."
"We have two separate and unequal countries within the single borders of America," she said, adding that many of the social freedoms that grew out of the Civil Rights Movement are directly impacted by an individual's economic status.
"Oh, we can live together, but sometimes we don't have enough money to do that."
Ms. Segars said the same restrictions apply to the education system and professional job market, pointing out that poorer Americans suffer from not receiving quality education and thus have less chance of succeeding in a professional capacity.
"There is fairness, but there is still injustice and inequality."
Again referring to "overt" forms of racism in Dr. King's day, Ms. Segars said that while modern practices of discrimination are harder to detect, various methods taken, in her case, by the state's Office of the Public Defender, have "kept the system in check, because we understand that on any given day, Lady Justice can be knocked flat on her back.
"It is our absolute obligation to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation," she said.
But the widening economic disparity in the U.S. is "alive and well," she said, pointing to the 2001 Economic Policy Institute study indicating that not since the Great Depression, have so few people controlled most of the country's wealth. That study also found that between 1979 and 2000, the income of the bottom 20 percent of all households grew by 6.4 percent, while the income of the top 20 percent grew by 70 percent. Additionally, the study found that the income level of the top 20 percent was 189 times greater than the average income of the bottom 20 percent.
"How do we attain the American dream of equality and justice for all? Dr. King preached that justice and equality are at the heart and soul of the American dream," Ms. Segars said. "His words are as relevant today as they were when he was alive."
University President Shirley Tilghman called Dr. King "an extraordinary man who changed the history of this country and in doing so, made the world a better place."
"All of us have an obligation to continue the journey on which Dr. King embarked with so much courage and faith."
Also included in the ceremony was the presentation of the Journey Award for Special Achievement to University junior religion major Dylan Tatz for his efforts in creating an on-campus dialogue seeking to improve Black-Jewish relations. The Journey Award for Lifetime Achievement was presented to University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee for his role in promoting campus diversity.
The University's annual King Day celebration also invited 300 students from 19 area schools to submit essays or videos about a personal journey that the student has completed or is currently going through, and how it relates to Dr. King's goal of improving civil rights. The University also received poster submissions from 250 students from eight area schools. See adjacent box for winners and honorable mentions.