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“My whole life, I’ve wondered how a man can be faithful to the word of God and be a racist. I still haven’t quite figured it out.”

By Adam Horn
Oxford Stories
aghorn1@go.olemiss.edu

 

Senator David Jordan

“My whole life, I’ve wondered how a man can be faithful to the word of God and be a racist.”

Born on Whittington Plantation, south of Greenwood, Mississippi, in April of 1933, State Senator David Jordan has witnessed the progression of civil rights from the struggles of the mid-50s to today, 50 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Senator Jordan recalls that he had just returned from a job picking peas in Wisconsin to begin school at Mississippi Valley State College in August of 1955 when young Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Leflore County.

In September, one of his social studies professors charged his students with reading the newspaper articles written about the trial and formulating a report on what they had read. Jordan often sat with his brother, Andrew, and their friends, Samuel and T.J., while discussing the trial at length. Soon the group decided reading and talking about it was not enough; they wanted to see the trial firsthand.

Pitching in a quarter each for gas, they set out for Sumner, Mississippi for the trial. When they arrived, they took a moment to hang around outside and take it all in.

On the front lawn of the courthouse, Jordan noticed a few reporters gathered when suddenly one of the men among them shouted, “That’s Mamie Till! Emmett Till’s Mother!” Immediately the grieving mother became the center of attention, and Jordan remembers thinking she must have been an exceptionally strong woman.

Escorted by Congressman Charles Diggs of Detroit, Mamie Till was asked if she thought her son would receive justice in Mississippi. Till meekly responded, “ I am just here to observe.”

After the congressman and Till entered the courthouse, reporters followed with David and his friends not far behind. Jordan recalls newspapers then had tried to raise the notion that Till was not dead, but that he had been seen in Chicago, and his death was simply a hoax intended to increase membership for the NAACP.

Jordan remembers that the man who retrieved Till’s body was on the stand. Chester Miller of Century Funeral home, a respected figure in the Greenwood African American community, stood soaked in sweat as he was hostilely cross-examined in the 95 degree courtroom by the defense who questioned the veracity of Till’s corpse. All arguments were silenced, however, when Miller produced a ring that bore the initials of Emmett’s father, found on the boy’s finger.

As the years passed, Jordan witnessed the charge for civil rights along with some of the atrocities that accompanied it. None were so devastating as the evening of April 4, 1968.

Senator Jordan recalls it was the day after he and his wife, Chris, had celebrated their shared birthday on April 3. He was at home grading papers after returning home from Marshall High School, where he taught science at the time, when the phone rang.

The call was from a nurse working at Dr. Fred Sandifer’s office who knew he had been involved in the civil rights movement in college. “Turn on your TV,” she said. “Dr. King has been shot in Memphis.”

Jordan’s heart sank into his stomach, and he ran to tell his wife, Chris. When they turned on the news, they saw ABC news commentator Sam Donaldson reporting the tragic news through tears.

“There was nothing we could do but break down crying ourselves because we were completely devastated,” Jordan recounts in his book, From The Mississippi Cotton Fields to the State Senate: A Memoir. As they flipped through the channels, every news channel was reporting the story, and many journalists were tearful.

As far as the “Dream” is concerned, Jordan feels we have made significant strides, but still have much work to do. “If I could make it back then, I feel young people should be able to make it today for sure,” Jordan said. “Young people burning the midnight oil and saving their money is how we can achieve the dream.”

Senator Jordan said he believes religious leaders should step up as Dr. King did in these politically divisive times using readings from the Bible to support noble causes. “Too many religious leaders are afraid of community reaction because the issues are political,” he said, “ but running from politics is like trying to run from the sky. You can’t do it.”

Jordan encourages others to listen to everyone, regardless of their background, because God does not see race.  “My whole life, I’ve wondered how a man can be faithful to the word of God and be a racist,” he said. “I still haven’t quite figured it out.”

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‘It was me seeing that I was broke, and they were broken – that I needed to preach a gospel that was bigger than white hate and black hate.’

Will Stribling
Oxford Stories
wtstribl@go.olemiss.edu

 

John Perkins

“It was me seeing that I was broke, and they were broken – that I needed to preach a gospel that was bigger than white hate and black hate.”

Boarding a train for California in 1947, John Perkins told himself he would never return to Mississippi. The then 16-year-old held nothing but contempt for white oppressors, religion, and the South he was leaving behind.

“Are you black or white?” Perkins asked over the phone as we planned an interview and discussed a prior connection. “That doesn’t matter. I love both black and white people. I’m just trying to get a picture to remember who you are,” he added after the question was answered.

The next day, things are peaceful at the Spencer Perkins Center in Jackson. Christmas lights hang from the roof, bells twirl under the building’s welcome sign, and his daughter Elizabeth sits inside prepping more holiday decorations. Perkins, now 83, is slender and has a kind face. Donning his usual ascot and sports coat combo, he could easily pass for 70. The aura around him is as imitable as the man himself.

Before we begin, he again asks me to tell him how I know him. Several years ago, not long before she died from cancer, Perkins came and prayed with my mother in a Jackson hospital. “Now you’re here, and we’re sharing this fellowship. Isn’t that something?” Perkins asks with a smile.

Now seated at a picnic table, Perkins tells the story of a life dedicated to his ministry of racial reconciliation and community development.

Perkins was born to a family of Mississippi sharecroppers in 1930 and grew up working on plantations in New Hebron. His mother, Maggie Perkins, died of pellagra, a vitamin B3 deficiency, when he was only 7 months old. Abandoned by his father, Perkins and older brother, Clyde, were two of the six Perkins children their grandmother was able to keep.

At this time, King Cotton’s reign began to fade and left only white anger in its absence. Clyde was then drafted to serve in World War 2. He fought in Germany and returned after the war with a Purple Heart and a lower tolerance for mistreatment from whites.

One Saturday in 1946 outside a local movie theater, a Mendenhall deputy marshal yelled at Clyde to quiet down and then struck him from behind with a club. An angry Clyde grabbed the club as the marshal went to hit him a second time. The marshal then stepped back and shot Clyde twice in the stomach. The closest hospital was over an hour and a half away in Jackson, and he died later that night.

In the months that followed, some family members told Perkins he should leave town. The Perkins family was known as a rebellious one, and John was no exception. “I had never accepted the myth that I was a nigger,” said Perkins.

Fearing he might retaliate and meet the same fate as his brother, his aunt and uncle put together enough money to send him to the west cost to start a new life. When Perkins arrived in California, he was determined to live the life he thought he deserved. He believed this relied on economic success and found a job on a Union Pacific Foundry assemble line. He worked alongside white workers and took home the same pay of 98 cents an hour.

Even after ramping up production tenfold, the workers wages stayed the same. Outraged, Perkins led a successful strike that gained the workers both higher pay and benefits. This exposed him to the power of organized political action and has stuck with him throughout his life.

In a visit back home in 1949, Spencer went to a service at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. Church was the only way to socialize at that time. Afterwards he spotted Vera Mae and was immediately smitten. He told her that he would marry her one day. She didn’t answer either way to his proposal.

After his return to California, they spent the next two years writing each other. In 1951, Perkins was drafted for the Korean War, and they decided to get married after he finished basic training. The newlyweds were only able to spend two weeks together in California before Perkins went back to camp and was shipped overseas.

In January of 1953, Perkins was discharged. He and Vera Mae then moved to Monrovia, California. Their first son, Spencer, was born in 1954. As a toddler, he started going to Bible classes at a church down the road. Perkins remembers that he would come home with a smile on his face, singing hymns like “Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world.”

Seeing the joy these classes brought Spencer peaked Perkins’ curiosity. After being asked by Spencer repeatedly to attend, Perkins went with him, and in time, opened up to the idea that God could exist for a black man.

In Mississippi, Perkins had only known the Church in the context of Southern exploitation. The white Church served as a justification for white supremacy. The black Church relied heavily on emotion, and yet still refused to speak or act on the brutality its members faced. He saw religious people as weak-willed and the Bible as a ridiculous fiction.

After his initial exposure with Spencer, Perkins accepted the invitation from a friend to attend another church and join an adult Bible study. He spent the next few months studying his Bible and was inspired by what he found, particularly the dedication of the apostle Paul. Then one Sunday in November of 1957, he made the decision to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and savior.

With his newfound faith, Perkins immediately began preaching in nearby neighborhoods. Soon after, he and Vera Mae started teaching daily child evangelism classes and attending leadership workshops. In these workshops, he befriended white Christians who had been similarly impacted by the gospel. This marked the beginning of a lifelong shift in his ministry.

“I was fortunate that it was both black and white folks discipling me,” he said. “Coming from Mississippi, I valued this new birth and discipleship that was higher than race even at that time.”

In 1958, Perkins became an ordained Baptist minister and began preaching at black and white churches. He soon began to feel called back to the South to minister to blacks who were still facing the same problems he’d left behind.

In 1960, with their fifth child on the way, Perkins and Vera Mae left the stability and success they’d found in California and moved back to New Hebron. Their focus was on youth-oriented ministry. After six months, they moved to Mendenhall to continue these efforts that included Bible classes in public schools and tent meetings for the entirety of Simpson County.

The philosophy of Perkins’ ministry wasn’t immediately accepted by the established religious community in Mendenhall. While wanting to address the black community’s spiritual needs, he also saw the need to focus on economic problems and community development.

In 1964, Perkins founded Voice of Calvary ministries, named after the California church that financed the startup. Voice of Calvary has touched countless lives in the communities it serves. Just one of them is Tony Mckinnis, 59, of Jackson.

Mckinnis moved from Maryland to Mississippi when he was 17. Angry over the forced move, the young man was headed down a dark path until he was befriended by the Perkins family. Seeing Perkins achieve such status despite his circumstances inspired Mckinnis. Despite never finishing the third grade, Perkins holds 14 honorary doctorate degrees, has written 10 books, and speaks all over the continental U.S.

“I would not have made it here if it weren’t for them,” Mckinnis said. “It makes you believe that it doesn’t take a man to exalt you. If God wants you exalted, he’ll exalt you. That’s what I got from watching this man.”

While he was aware of the politics of the time, Perkins was initially reluctant to become directly involved in the Civil Rights Movement. That began to change in 1963 when he heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Inspired by King and desiring equality for his now six children, Perkins dramatically increased the range of his ministry and political efforts over the next few years.

Throughout 1965-1967, Perkins led efforts to promote black voter registration. Perkins’ goal was to challenge the white establishment, and the black vote became a real political force in Simpson County. Perkins also heralded desegregation in 1967 when he enrolled his son Spencer as the first black student at Mendenhall High School.

Continuing his push for racial equality, Perkins organized a boycott of white-owned stores in Mendenhall in the fall of 1969, due to their resistance to desegregation. Voice of Calvary also expanded to developing low-income housing. The growing influence of the black community inspired more tension and anger from white people. The worst night of Perkins’ life, and the most radical transformation of his ministry, was just around the corner.

Students from Tougaloo College and Jackson State University organized a protest against police brutality on February 7, 1970. The protest was in response to a young black man being beaten up by police for asking a white woman for a date. Police set a trap for marchers once they crossed into Rankin County. Many students, and Perkins himself, were arrested and brought to the Brandon County Jail. Perkins would not leave before being tortured within an inch of his life.

Perkins said Sheriff Jonathan Edwards, along with a mixture of deputy sheriffs and highway patrolman, spent the entire night beating Perkins unconscious multiple times. Their cool down from this exercise was taking turns drinking moonshine out of paper cups.

The beating only stopped when word came through that the FBI might be stopping by. Fearing any real consequence for their brutality, Perkins said they dragged him to his feet and forced him to mop his own blood off the jail cell floor. When that visit didn’t come through, they made up for lost time by beating him more viciously than before.

Never before had Perkins felt the kind of anger he did that night. “If I’d had some sort of atomic grenade, I’d have set it off killing both white and black,” said Spencer.

The nightmare didn’t end until the next day. Perkins was only released after a local friend posted her property as his bond. The torture has left Perkins with lifelong scars. Nearly two-thirds of his stomach had to be removed afterwards due to trauma and ulcers that formed. He also suffered a heart attack afterwards. The white-controlled appeal process led him to plead guilty to a reduced charge with no fine or jail time.

Later, when reflecting on that night, Perkins realized his ministry was incomplete, and that being a follower of Jesus required him to be better.

“It was me seeing that I was broke and they were broken,” he said. “That I needed to preach a gospel that was bigger than white hate and black hate.”

In 1971, Perkins moved and expanded Voice of Calvary in Jackson. There he developed the new philosophy of his ministry, the “three Rs” — relocation, redistribution and reconciliation. This new ministry focused on the ways racism had degraded both the black and white communities.

Perkins continued to lead the thriving Voice of Calvary Ministries until he and Vera Mae moved back to California in 1982. There he established the Harambee Christian Family Center and the John Perkins Foundation. Their efforts serve many areas of cummunity need including: healthcare, tutoring and low-income housing.

Perkins’ son Spencer suffered a heart attack and died in 1998. To honor his memory, Perkins and Vera Mae made their final move back to Jackson After buying the land Spencer had owned, they built their home and the Spencer Perkins Center next door. It has developed multiple youth programs since its inception and recently launched a mentoring program.

Things were never easy for the Perkins family. It even took his children a long time to understand and embrace the family ministry. His oldest daughter, Elizabeth Perkins, originally planned on becoming a doctor. Last year, she and her two sisters became co-presidents of the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation.

Though Perkins is shifting away from some of the more active leadership duties in the JVMPF, he still plan on writing and speaking. He’s currently in the process of writing what he says is his last book “One Blood: Final Words To The Church On Race.”

“I’m not going out with my head in the sand,” said Perkins.

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‘We prescribed to nonviolence, because we knew if we turned to violence, we would get everyone in Mississippi killed.’

Kaitlin Hollister
Oxford Stories
klhollis@go.olemiss.edu

Roscoe Jones and London Webster

‘We prescribed to nonviolence, because we knew if we turned to violence, we would get everyone in Mississippi killed.’

Roscoe Jones, a Meridian native and Bloody Sunday marcher, now 70, was a young adult when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, but he remembers the moment he heard the tragic news. The follower of King was a college student on spring break when the assassination occurred. “We were in Chicago on our way to my aunt’s house when we heard about what happened,” he said. 

Jones said he remembers being angry. Although he says he wanted places like Chicago and Washington, D.C. to burn because of King’s death, Jones knew King wouldn’t have wanted that.

On the day of the assassination, Jones was walking down the Chicago streets when he witnessed a white man get jumped by an angry group of African American men. Soon after, Jones stepped in between them to intervene, telling the men who started the attack that he understood their anger, but violence wasn’t what King would have wanted.

Meridian native London Webster, 67, was living in uptown Washington, D.C. during the time King was assassinated. Webster was a high school student, and he believes he was in class when he heard the news. Until King’s assassination, he said most of the D.C. riots were downtown, but after the news broke, many citizens uptown feared the riots would reach other parts of the city. “Anyone was susceptible to harm,” he said. “After the riots started, we stayed inside to avoid them.”

Webster, who was young during the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, said he didn’t follow King’s speeches, but he followed his message. “After the assassination, it moved me to be radical and not afraid of violence,” he said. He even began following the revolutionary socialist organization, the Black Panthers.

Both Jones and Webster agree that King was an eloquent orator with a unique ability to inspire people to do something. “No one has captivated such a large group of people as Dr. King has,” said Webster.

Jones was an active proponent of the Civil Rights Movement and president of the youth chapter of the NAACP during the Freedom Summer of 1964. He also served as co-chairman for the Freedom Summer Youth Convention in Meridian the same year. “People do not often realize that it was the young adults that were the boots on the ground,” he said. “It was the students who led the movement.”

Jones marched from Selma to Montgomery on what is now known as “Bloody Sunday,” in 1965 for the Voter’s Registration March. He said he and a group of young adults were at the church when they realized they had been left by other marchers. As they ran to catch up, they were met by a large crowd running towards the church yelling that they were being beaten. Jones said they ran back, but were met at the church by local and state law enforcement, who beat the marchers in the church and sprayed them with tear gas.

Jones worked with King on multiple other occasions, including King’s tour of Mississippi. He said one of King’s greatest fears was visiting Mississippi because it was more dangerous than anywhere else. “We prescribed to nonviolence because we knew if we turned to violence, we would get everyone in Mississippi killed,” Jones said.

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First Union Baptist Church where King gave his speech in Meridian, Mississippi.

Jones helped prepare the city of Meridian for King’s speeches. His job was to help ensure that both locations would be filled to capacity. King was set to speak at First Union Church first, then St. John Baptist Church. According to Jones, the event at First Union Church went smoothly, but on the night of the second speech, the city fire marshal evacuated the church saying it had become a safety issue.

Things in Mississippi were so dangerous, King left Meridian in the back of hearse, because at the time, it was the safest way out of the city. “No one is going to stop and check a hearse,” said Jones.

When asked about where the world might be if King had not been assassinated, Jones said he was unsure. He said he believes King was ready for death. “He didn’t want to speak in Memphis that night,” said Jones. He did not prepare for the speech and even tried to send someone in his place.

In his final speech known as “The Mountaintop Speech,” King spoke about death and his funeral. “He had death on his mind and knew it was upon him,” said Jones.

Although Jones said King had a plan for the future, King left behind a great legacy and plan in his book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community. “Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to be remembered as a drum major for justice,” said Jones.

Jones said King saw the movement headed in a direction he did not like. King wanted his life to be meaningful. He knew if he continued, it might not be, and he feared what the future would hold, adding, “I don’t know what would have happened if Dr. King had survived.”

What Jones does know is, “If we had the communication advantages young people now have, then we would have turned the whole state of Mississippi and the world upside down.”

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“It hasn’t changed. It’s changed for individuals, but not for the collective. We’re still on that same road we’ve been on since 1968. War has not ceased since then.”

By Carter Diggs
Oxford Stories
mcdiggs@go.olemiss.edu

 

Baba Woroka Mwanafunzi Sobukwe

“We’re still on that same road we’ve been on since 1968. War has not ceased since then.”

Alabama native Baba Woroka Mwanafunzi Sobukwe joined the U.S. Army in 1967 as a way to escape discrimination and become a man.

“Alabama was Alabama, just like Mississippi was Mississippi,” he said. “We were seeking our manhood. We were tired of running from the police and tired of being discriminated against, so we went into the Army to try and find a way of standing up for ourselves.”

A year later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.

“King was the last hope for peace,” he said. “When King was killed, all the people my age said that that was it, there’s no hope left.”

Following King’s assassination, the Army was put on alert, and Sobukwe’s regiment was taken to Washington, D.C. “We loaded up 60 trucks, five tanks and two helicopters,” Sobukwe said. “We went out to D.C, and we stayed there night and day.”

He and fellow soldiers patrolled the streets by day. Despite high tensions, Sobukwe said peace came 10 days later on April 14, Easter Sunday. That morning, D.C. citizens and soldiers left their homes dressed in their Sunday best and ready to celebrate the holiday.

But peace didn’t last. During riots one day, a group of people set a city building on fire. As the fire department responded, the arsonists, still in the building, opened fire. Members of Sobukwe’s regiment called in for support hunkered down next to the firemen.

“That day, some people found their humanity,” Sobukwe said.

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When a white lieutenant who stood beside Sobukwe called for someone to bring a grenade launcher so he could launch it into the house and kill the people inside, one of the men standing behind Sobukwe spoke out against the white lieutenant.

“He told him, ‘You aren’t gonna shoot nothing inside that house,’” Sobukwe said. “I was stunned, because I had never seen any black person talk to a white person like that. Not only was he talking to a white man; he was talking to an officer in the United States Army. I asked where he got that courage from, and when I looked on his shoulder, I saw a patch where he had been to Vietnam. And I said, ‘Okay, I’m gonna go get me some of that courage.’”

Immediately after the D.C. riots, Sobukwe went straight to his superiors and requested a transfer. In August of that year, he landed on the battlegrounds of Vietnam.

“We knew what the conflict was all about, though,” Sobukwe said. “I knew we couldn’t win.”

One night while lying on a sandbag, Sobukwe watched a gunship nicknamed Puff the Magic Dragon rain fire on a group of distant enemy soldiers. As the ship shot at the Vietnamese soldiers, Sobukwe noticed one soldier shooting back. Seeing one soldier fight until the end made him realize the Vietnamese would never give in, and there was no chance of a full victory.

“I think a lot of us found courage [in Vietnam],” said Sobukwe, who believes we are still seeking solutions to race issues.  “That’s (where) we are now, and we’re still seeking a solution to this problem, but nobody’s asking us what we think the answer is.”

Sobukwe said the first step in making things right is for honest people to unite, look at what happened then, what’s happening now, and what the people of the country and the government can do to progress.

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“If we don’t do something and do it quick,” Sobukwe said, “we’re looking at the graveyard. We’ve got quiet now, but the quiet comes just before the storm.”

As a long-term goal, Sobukwe holds a nationalist mindset, wishing for African American citizens to establish their own distinct state and culture. He feels integration isn’t the right direction, and that it would require a complete reconstruction of the nation’s constitution and structure to establish a system free of prejudice.

“It hasn’t changed,” Sobukwe said. “It’s changed for individuals, but not for the collective.  We’re still on that same road we’ve been on since 1968. War has not ceased since then.”

Even as more African Americans find ways to succeed in today’s culture, Sobukwe said he believes everyone should focus on the most downtrodden in society and see what can be done to raise the economic floor. Echoing King, Sobukwe said he believes as long as there is one person still being discriminated against or one family living in poverty, there is work to be done.

After serving in the Army, Sobukwe began teaching African American history and culture. “He’s taught me a lot,” said Ayo Williams, Sobukwe’s granddaughter, who is a freshman member of the University of Mississippi Black Student Union. “Growing up, he had a lot of interesting stories that show how brave and courageous he is. He grew up in a time where he could have been killed for some little thing, like back-talking a white police officer. He did those things. He’s still here, and I think that’s really amazing.”

Sobukwe said he once taught at the Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in New York, but has since parted ways with the organization. Hamer was an American voting rights activist and Civil Rights Movement leader who worked primarily in Mississippi and was instrumental in organizing Mississippi’s Freedom Summer. Today, Sobukwe teaches a course at the University of Mississippi and history to anyone interested.

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‘He had to potential to unify the voices of African Americans.’

Sydney Stevens
sgsteven@go.olemiss.edu
Oxford Stories

 

Edgar and Pat Taylor

“He had to potential to unify the voices of African Americans.”

Edgar Taylor began his morning as a delivery driver for a produce company on April 4, 1968.

“I remember feeling good about (King’s) speech the previous day, ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,’ almost feeling hopeful for the future,” Taylor said.

King’s speech focused on employment discrimination in the African American community. Taylor even remembers what he had for dinner before hearing the news of King’s assassination on the radio – pork chops and mashed potatoes. After eating, his emotions went from shock and sadness to madness.

“The Civil Rights Movement, as we knew it, was going to come to a halt,” he said.

Taylor and wife, Pat, talked to friends and family to share their shock and disbelief. “…We met at the church and prayed,” he said, adding that the African American community was angry. Some became conflicted about the nonviolent views of MLK compared to the more aggressive message of Malcom X. The assassination created instability in the country. Troubled times were on the horizon. The nation was “…confused but in a changing mode.” People were ready to do something, but now lacked a leader.

Today, Taylor believes the African American community still needs a strong leader that can foster unification. He said there are many subcultures that lack leadership.

“It divides the community,” he said. “There is no solidity.”

If King were alive today, Taylor believes he would be combating many of America’s problems. He said he believes King had unlimited potential, was well liked, and would have become the first African American president.

“He had the ability to unify America,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s wife, Pat, agreed.

“He would’ve been a great role model for young African Americans,” she said. And she believes he would have helped build a stronger National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

King might have also voiced his concerns for healthcare reform, worked to reduce the African American unemployment rate, and fought to improve public school education programs. He would have worked to equalize the school systems in poor communities to ensure equal access for all learners. Pat said there is still too much crime and hatred in the African American community, and African Americans must unite to advance.  “He had to potential to unify the voices of African Americans,” she said.