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Dream in progress
William Smith Mickelson, 6, and his mother, Terri, honored the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday night with a candlelighting ceremony at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Missoula.
Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

Social justice problems persist, speakers say

Racism and injustice don't look the same as they looked in the 1960s. But Martin Luther King Jr.'s dreams of freedom and justice are still not realized, speakers told Missoula audiences on Monday. Now it's up to all people to continue his work.

In King's time, schools and buses were segregated, and discrimination in housing and jobs was starkly obvious. Today, racism might be harder to see, but it's still there, Amie Thurber told about 175 people gathered at St. Paul Lutheran Church to honor King on the national holiday marking his birthday.

"Few of us, if we describe racism as words or actions, would say we are racist," said Thurber, who is director of the Missoula chapter of the National Coalition Building Institute.

But, she said, "Racism is embedded in every part of our culture."

How is it, she asked, that the death rate from heart disease is 50 times higher in black men than in white men? Of all races, she said, black males make up 41 percent of those in jail and 49 percent of those in prison. In Montana, minority children are expelled from school at greater rates than white children. How influenced are we by the Christian God being cast as a white man? By female beauty being defined by white female beauty?

"We think of slavery as black history, not as our history," Thurber said.

Thurber charged the audience with making sure they don't lead segregated lives. Reach out, get involved and work for justice, she said - even if you're a white person. If white people don't help, then the job is left to people of color, she said. They're already working: Indian People's Action works for social justice statewide, the Montana Asian-American Center teaches young Hmong people about their culture of origin, Indian tribes are teaching and keeping alive their native languages.

"We have a lot to learn from these efforts," she said.

Outside the United States, children toil behind closed doors and live on the streets in countries like Mexico and Tibet, Emily Sandall told about 75 people gathered at dusk in the Caras Park Pavilion. There's so much poverty in the world and so much waste. But that could change, she said.

"Many of us here have the privilege of choice," said Sandall, a University of Montana student who works on social justice for children in countries with child labor.

Problems that are still with us today are some of the same ones King worked on in the last five years of his life, before he was assassinated in 1968, UM adjunct professor George Price told the Caras Park audience. King worked for more inclusion and diversity in the civil rights movement. But he also worked to end poverty of black and white people, and he proposed a universal living wage, Price said. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, worked to end housing discrimination by living in a ghetto in Chicago. The Fair Housing Act was passed not long after his death.

Northern white people of the time were quick to point out the racism of the South, Price said.

"But King went to Chicago and places like that and pointed the finger at racism wherever it was," he said.

Music played an important role in Missoula's King Day ceremonies, which were sponsored by more than a dozen groups and businesses. At St. Paul, the Missoula Community Chorus sang, including a Hebrew song for peace, "Hashivenu."

In Caras Park, musician Amy Martin sang and led the crowd in two songs after asking them to pretend they'd been singing gospels all their lives. The songs and the speakers brought the thud of applause from gloved and mittened hands. At 5:45 p.m., singer and UM music professor Stephen Kalm led the crowd in "We Shall Overcome" and began the walk over the Higgins Avenue Bridge to the church.

The bundled-up crowd ranged from the gray-haired to babies on their parents' backs. Many, said master of ceremonies and human rights advocate Ralph Stone, were not even born when King led the March on Washington, D.C., and delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 or when he was assassinated in 1968. It's up to them to remember the ideals.

"I think Martin Luther King embodied American ideals better than anyone," he said.

Reporter Ginny Merriam can be reached at 523-5251 or at gmerriam@missoulian.com

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