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Sitting cross-legged with an acoustic guitar sloping across her lap, Joanie Cottrell staged her own sit-in demonstration inside her classroom.
Staking out a tiny alcove in a semicircle of rapt third-graders, Cottrell led a rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” in which she encouraged students to add their own verses to reflect changes spurred by the civil rights movement.
They eagerly chimed in with refrains of “freedom now is here” and “freedom is coming today.”
Cottrell teaches music but wove history into her lesson plans Wednesday at Radcliff Elementary School, just days before the country stops to reflect on the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Before his death, King was influential in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which abolished major forms of discrimination against blacks and other minorities, including women. The legislation served to put an end to legalized prejudice in schools and the workplace.
Cottrell, who was 3 when the law was enacted, said it took years for the legislation to take full effect across the country.
She reflected on her childhood when she traveled with her parents to Alabama to visit family. Cottrell recalled walking into a coin-operated laundry and seeing nothing but white people, wondering why those of other races were not patronizing the business.
When Cottrell asked, her mother’s response was, “They have their own laundromat.”
Through Wednesday’s lesson, Cottrell linked King’s pursuits to Rosa Parks, whose arrest for refusing to give up a seat on a public bus to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., helped stir a revolution.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a catalyst for the civil rights movement as King urged blacks to strike back through peaceful protests and sit-in demonstrations rather than brutish displays of violent retaliation.
Cottrell told her class those who stood at the forefront of the movement by leading sit-ins were ridiculed for their actions and often had liquids poured on their heads and food dumped on them.
“That’s messed up,” one childsaid aloud, a stunned revelation passing across the students’ faces.
After the class lined up and left, Cottrell said her background allowed her to see King’s dream played out in Ohio and Alabama as she realized firsthand how law does not immediately usher in changes.
“I grew up where I had one black person in my middle school,” she said.
She also has relatives who were invested in sharecropping and often heard stories of cotton picking and the use of minorities to make money.
Cottrell said she feels blessed to have a channel to share history with young minds and has created a play adapted from another play, “Harriet Tubman: From Slavery to Freedom.” Her classes perform it in February during Black History Month. She has received several calls from parents and grand-parents, thanking her for her contributions, she said.
A dream partially fulfilled
Local residents, teachers and community leaders are in accord that King’s dream to end prejudice has been met to some extent, but work is needed to keep those accomplishments from eroding.
Howard Williams, a Vietnam veteran, said King’s dream was not limited to the plight of blacks, his goal was to establish equality for everyone by opening the workplace up to minorities and women, giving everyone more options.
After leaving the U.S. Army, Williams said he worked in a business where 28 different ethnicities were represented, a microcosm of how melded cultures have become a new normal for a modern society.
“The culture is dynamic,” he said.
That diversity has crossed over into Hardin County, which is known as a “melting pot” largely because of military families who often represent different races and cultures.
Williams was stationed at the Pentagon when King was assassinated and experienced racial discrimination while serving in the military, which was amplified in the Vietnam-era because of the unpopularity of the war and a tainted view of soldiers.
So Williams is acutely aware of the changes, new freedoms offered and even taken for granted, such as diversity in options for doctors. A few decades ago, he said, neither minorities nor women could credibly lead medical practices, but that notion now is commonplace.
Of course, Williams said, there always is room for improvement, and certain areas are less racially dynamic than others.
“If you go to eastern Kentucky, you get the kinds of looks like, ‘What are you doing here?’” Williams said.
Williams recounted occasions when he found vacancies at hotels but those rooms were off limits to blacks.
“If you wanted to rest, there’d be no room for me,” he said.
But the days of pulling up to a business and finding separate restrooms or drinking fountains are gone. As an indirect result, Williams said, the civil rights movement served to promote smarter business models by allowing access to all people.
“It instilled good business practices,” he said.
Toni Perry, a social studies teacher at T.K. Stone Middle School, recently completed a thorough examination of the 2012 presidential election process with her class, which she said taught time management and critical thinking skills while demonstrating the attainability of King’s goals through the re-election of a president with a black heritage.
“Students can make the correlation that through a democratic society the qualms of racism can be eradicated,” Perry said in an email. “The vision of Dr. Martin Luther King was for all students to receive an education where there is a mutual respect for all cultures and nationalities. While his dream is being realized, we know there are obstacles for us to overcome. Yet the reality of his dream is no longer unattainable.”
She said T.K. Stone has created an environment free of judgment and full of compassion that promotes different ideas and concepts personifying King’s efforts.
“If it’s not an idea that’s popular, they still can feel safe,” he said.
Perry said obstacles remain as the field still is unlevel for an equal education. She also wants to see a more active effort to pull children away from video games so they can spend more time bonding with families around the dinner table.
Perry also stressed a need to reflect on the issues King promoted during his life and how those philosophies shape today’s culture.
“Once you become so removed from it, we get desensitized,” she said.
Marcus Ray, president of the Hardin County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said blacks now can attain good jobs, hold positions of power and live in nice neighborhoods of their choosing, but the rights aggressively fought for by King and other fore-bears have been “assaulted” because the current generation has “fallen asleep at the wheel.”
Ray referred to voter ID laws proposed throughout the country as “the new Jim Crow” because it would force a restrictive pretext on a person’s right to vote, much like poll taxes hampered minorities when Jim Crow laws were in effect. Ray believes those laws were proposed by manipulative forces who want to control elections by stripping the “black and brown” vote.
Ray also referenced what he called “the systematic elimination of the black male vote” over the last 30 years, perpetuated by the mass incarceration of blacks for nonviolent felony offenses. Ray said the stigma attached to a felon greatly damages their ability to reintegrate into mainstream society as they are denied most jobs and stripped of voting rights.
“So now they can’t vote, they’re a second-class citizen and (it’s done) legally,” he said.
The Kentucky NAACP launched a billboard campaign last week to condemn felony disenfranchisement after Iowa and Virginia made steps to restore voting rights for those with felony convictions.
“The impact of felony disenfranchisement laws is felt disproportionately across demographics,” the Kentucky NAACP said in a written statement. “Although the number of those disenfranchised by these laws only amount to seven percent of Kentucky’s voting eligible residents, the number of Ken-tucky’s disenfranchised African Americans represent 22 percent of the state’s voting eligible black residents. Similar to overall numbers, nearly 75 percent of disenfranchised African Americans have completed all the terms of their sentence.”
The NAACP’s data were collected from the Sentencing Project, an effort established in 1986 to arm defense lawyers with sentencing advocacy training to curb reliance on incarceration, which has brought national attention to issues and perceived inequities in the criminal justice system, according to its official website.
According to the Sentencing Project, roughly 243,842 felons are disenfranchised in Kentucky and 56,920 of those without voting rights are black.
Ray also questioned attacks on affirmative action, which he said has gained an unfair reputation because of misinformation about its purpose.
Likewise, Ray believes there are inequities in education and said he opposes charter schools in Kentucky, which have been proposed again this year through House Bill 76.
HB 76 would create a five-year pilot program for a maximum of 75 charter schools, which would not be required to meet all the requirements of other public schools but could receive public money based on student enrollment. The bill is expected to fail. Ray said it would be a negative shift toward old habits because he believes charter schools again would separate minorities from white students.
“We’d be taking a step back to segregating schools,” he said.
Battleover shrinking resources
As the world prepares to reflect on King’s legacy, new divisions have creept up as Congress bickers over taxes, debt ceilings, spending cuts and gun control.
Terri Stewart, associate professor of political science and history and division chair of Social & Behavioral sciences and Related Technologies at Elizabethtown Community and Technical College, said today’s nonstop media cycle perpetuates divisions and spews venom toward particular groups of people without providing a proper historical context for what is transpiring in Washington.
“We don’t look at what our country has been,” she said. “I can’t see people taking to the streets because their Social Security tax went up.”
Stewart does not know if the country has simply “blown off history,” but describes today’s society as the “amputated present,” focusing on dramatic events and moving on to the next tragedy without taking time to reflect about how these moments are framed against history.
There appears to be a disregard of how current events can impact others, she said.
“With shrinking resources, everything has become about ‘me,’” she said. “And in a society where all of us share the same air, it can’t all be about ‘me.’”
Stewart said King was thrown into the civil rights movement at an early age and showed America that human rights are worth fighting for. When she hears lawmakers quibbling over who should pay more taxes, she believes King’s point has been missed because he wanted equal access to a good education, regardless of how much a person makes.
“I think it’s amazing what we have become so divided about,” she said.
Stewart also said the country must embrace its transgressions along with its treasures to truly evolve as a society. Freedom of the press and freedom of speech should be celebrated, but slavery and disenfranchisement must be remembered to learn from the past.
“It’s just as much a part of your history,” she said. “You can’t fix bad things if you don’t acknowledge the bad things happened in the first place.”
Marty Finleycan be reached at (270) 505-1762 or firstname.lastname@example.org.