On Monday, the nation will commemorate the life and legacy of a man who, to many, transcended racial boundaries and overcame discrimination to lead a movement that affected millions of Americans by opening the door to equality.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. united a disparate group of people into the civil rights movement, serving as its renowned leader until his assassination in 1968. Since then, the black community has seen several strong leaders emerge — Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton among them — but none has filled the void left by King, say local black leaders.
“I have yet to see anyone who holds a candle to him. There isn’t another. … He’s often imitated but never duplicated,” says Clark County Commissioner Lawrence Weekly. “But there isn’t a need for him. I think today because of his works … we know better so we ought to do better. We should be able to take the dream and work together, because no one man or woman can do it all.”
In the almost 40 years since King’s death, organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have become the de facto leadership in the black community, ensuring that attention remains focused on civil rights issues, says Eddie Watson, president of the Las Vegas chapter of the NAACP.
Leaders like King, who practiced civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance, are few and far between, says Kenton Williams, the president of 100 Black Men of Las Vegas, a nonprofit organization. King was most effective at tackling basic civil rights issues that were hard to overlook: the right to vote, segregation in public schools and employment discrimination, among others.
But the issues of today are complex, subtle and require the leadership of people from the minority and majority communities, says Williams, citing economic disparity, unemployment, underemployment, racial profiling in law enforcement and education as major issues facing the black community.
“I think the problems between then and now are similar, but back then they were just blatant” such as police brutality, Weekly says. “You name it, we deal with it.”
King’s work made it possible for blacks, such as Weekly, to achieve a level of success only imagined before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Weekly, who grew up in Las Vegas, was a poor kid who made it out of the projects and graduated from college, he says.
But there is still a large number of minorities who haven’t been able to rise above economic disparities and improve their lives.
Blacks made up 12.8 percent of the U.S. population in 2006; the poverty rate that same year was 24.3 percent for blacks not counting those of mixed race, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“There’s a communications gap in our community; so many African-Americans who have achieved the American dream, but then there are so many people who have not been able to reach any of those pinnacles in their lives. I attribute that to lack of resources, a lack of cooperation,” Weekly says.
“We are missing the mark when it comes to supporting and employing our very own community. I believe in order for us to get to where we need to go, sometimes you have to reach down and bring someone with you.”
Opportunities exist in the work force, in college and in government, Williams says, but “for one reason or another, we haven’t been able to fulfill Dr. King’s entire dream. Many kids are dropping out of high school and going on to prison. We have a high number of kids in prison compared to college. We need to reverse that trend.”
According to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, there were 3,437 sentenced black male prisoners per 100,000 black males in the United States at the end of 2002. In comparison, there were 1,176 sentenced Hispanic male inmates per 100,000 Hispanic males and 450 white male inmates per 100,000 white males that same year.
The only way to reverse that fact is to start prizing honest work above all else, Weekly says.
Many groups try to address the community’s troubles, but they’re too big to take on without a coordinated effort, Williams adds.
“I’m amazed at the number of people of good will working within the minority community, but it’s like they’re trying to do it alone. The issues are just too big,” Williams says. “It’s almost like you need a total community devotion approach to deal with the issues.”
There are resources available to help people, Weekly says, but there’s a disconnect between those who need it and those who deliver it. Community centers offer programs to keep kids off the streets; nonprofits aim to keep kids in school and out of trouble.
Members of Williams’ group, 100 Black Men of Las Vegas, mentor elementary school children, serving as role models and encouraging them to stay in school, he says.
“Our motto is ‘What they’ll see is what they’ll be,’ ” Williams says. Currently, the membership mentors about 125 students.
But some things are hard to fight against. There’s an apathy within the black community, Williams says, and people seem to be willing to accept the status quo.
Many challenges face the black community today but many solutions must begin from within the community, says Rainier Spencer, director of Afro-American Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“I think there’s a lot of self-help to be done,” Spencer says. “The first step to take: You have to start with yourself, your own family, your own community.”
Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at email@example.com or (702) 380-4564.OBAMA NEW HOPE?
Eddie Watson believes Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama could be a central leader much like Martin Luther King Jr. was.
He cites the Illinois senator’s presence, appearance, education and accomplishments as reasons why he could serve as a role model for young people within the black community.
“I think he can rally young people across the board. He could get those earrings out of their ears, those caps turned around, those noses in books,” says Watson, president of the Las Vegas chapter of the NAACP.
“When I look at him, this is what I see. This is our savior. Obama’s the hope that I see for our generation.”
That could be, says Rainier Spencer, director of Afro-American studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. But so far, Obama has not indicated that he would take on traditional black issues.
“He’s not specifically interested in focusing on those issues. That’s why he’s so appealing” to so many people, Spencer says.
— By SONYA PADGETT