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MLK Day: Two Generations Asked To Seek Change

Courtesy of the Mcrorey Family YMCA

Benjamin Jealous, a former leader of the NAACP, spent the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in Charlotte. He spoke at two events, each representing a different generation.

Jealous began his morning at the Crown Ballroom at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It was the site of the 21st annual Martin Luther King prayer breakfast, sponsored by the YMCA.

The crowd of more than 1,000 bowed their heads as Dr. Rodney Sadler began the invocation.

"Holy one, it is once again we come before you with thanksgiving in our hearts," Sadler thanked Dr. King for all he did and asked for guidance for all still to be done. "For our nation is still riddled with injustice. Our nation is still inflicted with inequalities."

Sadler then cited a much-debated statistic. "Our black and brown boys are gunned down by officers at 21 times the rate of white men."

Credit Tom Bullock/WFAE News
Benjamin Jealous projected on the screen as he addresses the 21st annual Martin Luther King prayer breakfast in uptown.

The crowd was predominately African-American. On a day set aside to honor the nation’s preeminent civil rights activist, a black man gunned down by a white extremist, it would be easy to assume Jealous, as the keynote speaker, would focus on that sentiments of "us" and "them."

"If I were to tell you today that there’s a group of men in this country who’s incarceration rate is 75 percent as high, almost as high as black men in South Africa at the height of apartheid when South Africa was the world’s leading incarcerator, who would you guess that would be?" the crowd was silent as Jealous answered his own question. "I’m talking about white men in this country."

If that’s the case for the most privileged group in our society, Jealous argued "it is time for us to admit that we all need Dr. King's vision and impatience and focus in making our country a better place for all of us."

He included other groups in his speech: gay people, Latinos, the poor.

Jealous’s message was broad but it did come with some references to North Carolina and an indictment of changes to North Carolina's voting laws. He referred to them as voter suppression.

"And let us be clear, voter suppression is not the strategy of people who know they are winners. Its is the strategy of people who fear they soon will be losers."

For many of those assembled for the breakfast what happened in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel is etched in their memory, not just in a textbook.  For this crowd, Jealous told them to always know what you’re fighting for, and what you have. "Because if you don’t know what you’re fighting for, chance of you getting it are pretty slim. And if you don’t know what you have the chance of you losing it is pretty good."

For his second stop, Jealous headed up Beatties Ford Road to the McCrorey Family YMCA. Where the

Credit Tom Bullock/WFAE News
Benjamin Jealous address a group of teens at the McCrorey Family YMCA in Charlotte.

Black Ink Monks, a poetry group, warmed up the crowd. This audience was largely teenagers. Students for whom Wikipedia may be their first stop in learning about the civil rights movement. But for whom racial profiling may be a common occurrence. "I’ve been profiled," Jealous told them. "It's humiliating."

But, he added, you can’t just be a victim, "we also must always take the higher ground."

For this audience, Jealous said don’t just know what you’re fighting for, and know you’re not too young to start.