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Race advocates express their hopes for future of the civil rights movement

Wooster-Orrville NAACP asks five local and national civil rights advocates about the direction the movement should take over the coming year

Participants at last year’s Wooster-Orrville NAACP Martin Luther King Jr. Day dinner might have had trouble imagining that in a year’s time they would be marking MLK Day in a video rather than in-person.

Few could have guessed how much the national and local conversation on race would change after the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd set off a wave of civil rights protests.

In that context and unable to gather for its customary dinner, the Wooster-Orrville NAACP asked five local and national civil rights advocates about the direction the movement should take over the coming year in a 58-minute video posted on the organization’s Facebook page and on the YouTube page of Trinity United Church of Christ.

The Wooster-Orrville NAACP’s new president, Juanita Greene, opened the video recounting the tumultuous events of the last year and said that King’s message remains as relevant as ever.

“When we win against injustice, everybody wins,” Greene said.

The Rev. Dr. Enikő Ferenczy, pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Wooster, then gave the benediction, calling on God to help create “a world where justice is a reality for all Americans, indeed all people, not just the few.”

The Rev. Kevan Franklin, who leads Trinity United Church of Christ in Wooster and chairs the local NAACP’s MLK Day committee, spoke next.

“For some people, Martin Luther King Day is just a day off, but for us it’s always a day of inspiration and hope,” he said. “We wouldn’t miss this day of celebration for anything,”

The pastor said that the cause of social justice has been newly energized by the past year and that more people are becoming engaged.

“As we enter a new year, we are more determined than ever to make Martin’s dream a reality,” he said. “The dream of the beloved community in this community, in our nation and throughout the world.”

Franklin then introduced the pair of questions posed to the video’s speakers: What social justice issues are most important to you? and what positive changes do you hope to see in 2021?

Yvonne Williams, a professor emerita of Black studies at the College of Wooster, was the first speaker. She highlighted the issues of criminal justice and education as her priorities.

Specifically, Williams pointed out that eyewitnesses often incorrectly identify Black people and that the bail system often leaves Black Americans in jail for crimes of which they have not been convicted. She also called for desegregation and improved efforts to teach Black history in schools.

“These are things Martin Luther King was concerned about, and if he were with us, he would still be concerned about,” the professor said.

Davis Houck, a professor of rhetorical studies at Florida State University who graduated from the College of Wooster in 1989, followed Williams.

Houck chose to highlight voting rights as his top issue for 2021. He discussed efforts to extend voting rights to felons in Florida who have been stymied by the state legislature even after voters voiced their support for the measure in a 2018 ballot measure.

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, the head of the Office of the Public Witness for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) spoke after Houck and addressed the deepening of divisions between identity groups in the U.S. and the loss of national identity.

Désirée Weber, an assistant professor of political science at the College of Wooster, reflected on the daily racial justice protests that she has helped organize in the square since the early summer.

Today will mark the 232th day of protest, Weber said.

“No matter the number or the weather some of us will continue to be at the square every day,” she said. “We will be there to bear witness, … to organize our continuing efforts to build community in Wooster and the surrounding communities, but also to remind passersby that issues of racial justice matter and affect their lives even if some want to deny that.”

She said that despite the sustained protests, the Wayne County Racial Justice Coalition which grew out of the protests has yet to receive “much substantive response” from city and county leaders.

Weber encouraged viewers to join the protests and or become active in the coalition.

Deliya Banda Wesley, a scientific director for health equity research at the Hyattsville, Maryland-based MedStar Health Research Institute, rounded out the speakers.

Wesley the pandemic’s disparate impact on Black people who have been more like to contract, be hospitalized for and die of the virus.

“It took a pandemic to finally expose the cracks and fractures in our system,” she said.

Another hallmark of the NAACP MLK Day ceremony that was missing this year was the essay contest for elementary and high school students. The committee that oversees the competition decided to cancel it in May, but it will be back this year.

Franklin closed the video by encouraging viewers to read King’s books and listen to his sermons all the way through before asking themselves, “are we still living out the beloved community of King’s dream?”

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