Today’s federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent activism comes after mass violence and destruction rained down on the U.S. Capitol. Area civil rights leaders and scholars contemplated whether a fractured country can be healed as the threat of more disorder looms when the presidency passes hands this week.
“We’re at a crossroads,” said Amaha Sellassie, an assistant professor of sociology at Sinclair Community College. “There is one direction that can be taken,” he said. “But a lot of people are so opposed and dismayed and saddened by what happened that it shows there is another way.”
The way ahead follows a trail blazed by King, Sellassie said. “King talked about the single garment of destiny: what affects one affects us all,” Sellassie said, invoking King’s own words: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Despite steps forward, the sting of racism remains ever-present for Black Americans, said Mila Cooper, who riding her bike through Englewood endured racial slurs hurled by supporters of President Donald J. Trump who caravanned through in a rolling rally before November’s election.
It happened “more than once,” said Cooper, former director of the Coretta Scott King Center at Antioch College.
Cooper wonders why partisans can’t support candidates in positive ways without lashing out at other Americans.
“But when you see the Confederate flags and what that stands for — that was part of the insurrection,” she said.
If Blacks — instead of predominantly white Americans — would have stormed the Capitol earlier this month it would have been a starkly different scene, Cooper said.
“You would have seen body bags and dogs. It would have been a bloodbath, said Cooper who is vice president for student affairs and dean of students.
“If we keep going in the direction in which we’re going, I think it could be catastrophic,” she said. “It could be almost like civil war.”
The lessons of Abraham Lincoln’s steadfastness through the American Civil War and King’s struggle to gain equal rights for the generations freed by that war might be learned anew, said Kevin Kelly, executive director of the Dayton International Peace Museum.
“I always look at history when I’m trying to understand human nature and why people make the decisions they do and what led to it and how we can get back the things that we’ve lost,” he said.
A minority of the nation has lost civility and refuses to seek common ground, Kelly said.
“The vast majority of Americans would reject violence and would reject the way that the people in the name of patriotism have behaved the last few years,” he said.
Dream on hold
But the actions little surprised most Black Americans, said Mary Tyler, former executive director of the National Conference for Community and Justice of Greater Dayton.
“There has been a groundswell of these thoughts and sentiments and even behavior that has occurred over the last several years,” she said.
Tragic events of recent years threaten to put King’s dream on hold, said Derrick Foward, NAACP Dayton Unit president.
The deaths at the hands of police of Black men — and boys — including George Floyd in Minneapolis, Tamir Rice in Cleveland and John Crawford III in Beavercreek have no part in the country King aspired to live in,” Foward said.
“That is not the America King dreamed about,” he said. “King did not die to see a world trampled by bigotry and inflammatory hatred. He lived so that Americans could know what unity, love and peace is all about.”
The essence of King’s message was not so much one of unity as it was a fight for equality, justice and voting rights. It will take more than people of all colors and creeds joining hands to sing “We Shall Overcome” to surmount this moment in American history, Cooper said.
“Clearly, to me, what happened at the Capitol shows there are still two Americas in terms of black and brown folks and others,” she said.
Sellassie said King to a certain extent predicted current events if the country refused to address underlying issues: namely the disease of racism that shows up in a host of discrepancies from housing to employment to health and life expectancy.
“There’s a small segment of this country that still believes whites are superior and they are fighting hard right now to keep that alive,” Sellassie said.
While the country has been divided for ages, the fissure revealed over the last several years is stark,” Cooper said.
“The hatred and lack of humanity seem to come from under a rock, so to speak, and it’s blatant and it’s overt,” she said.
The latest division comes following the nation’s first African American president and just before the first female vice president and first of color take the oath of office Wednesday.
The elections of Barack Obama and now Kamala Harris are a more accurate mirror of society, but have likely fueled the rage of some people, Kelly said.
“For so long the top levels of every part of our country did not reflect who we are as far as diversity and gender,” he said. “It’s not going to go well in many communities, but it so reflects who we are as a country and what we should be doing and who should be represented. It has to happen, however painful It is some people.”
Repairing divisions is an all-hands task, Cooper said.
“We have to be part of the healing. It’s just not going to come from the president or in four years we’ll be in the same place,” Cooper said. “While I do think leadership is essential, whether it’s the president or the mayor or the governor, it also involves neighbors.”
Sellassie said communities must build an “ecosystem” of antiracism and an ethos of interdependence, not independence.
Locally, the Dayton region pulled together through a hate group’s rally, tornadoes and a mass shooting in 2019. Both the city of Dayton and Montgomery County officials declared racism a public health crisis last year following protests over George Floyd’s death and in the midst of a pandemic that has disproportionately taken more Black lives.
“We found a great ability to pull together. And now as a country it’s time to really pull together,” Sellassie said. “That’s not looking past what happened. We need to have conversations of how we got to where we are and how we can move forward.”
Being antiracist means taking action to identify and halt racist ideas, behaviors and policies, Tyler said.
“You can bring it up in the right moment, in the right environment so that it’s changed, disrupted and dismantled and people are held accountable for that action,” she said. “Whether they change behavior that’s up to them, but at least you’ve done your part.”
Faith in dream
Foward has not lost faith that King’s dream will someday be realized and the NAACP put out of business.
“I still have every bit of hope, and more hope now than ever, that (Trump) has been impeached for a second time and will not ever be able to inflame bigotry among millions of followers,” he said.
Tyler is also heartened by the many people working across the Dayton community to ensure all people are valued and included.
“Dr. King’s legacy of nonviolent change, that movement, can be replicated even today and we will return to a place of civility,” she said.
Sellassie finds encouragement in the young students he teaches at Sinclair.
“The younger generations are not caught up on race the way older generations are, so we’ve got to follow their lead. They are showing another world is possible,” he said.