Understanding country's history key to overcoming racism, black scholar says

Published: Monday, Jan. 17 2011 11:56 p.m. MST

Students and community members take part in a candlelight procession on BYU campus on Monday.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

PROVO — The booming voice of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., echoed in the rainy sunset as he proclaimed, "Today, you do not walk alone."

King's words of encouragement, faith and devotion, both recorded and written, lined the path from the BYU Carillon Bell tower to the Wilkinson Student Center where students, children and parents gathered after a candlelight walk to honor the late civil rights leader.

And they didn't walk alone. The massive group carried flickering candles to represent the light that King shared through his vision of a peaceful, equal nation.

"I think it's good for all of us to remember our unity with each other," said Twilla Mann of Provo, who came with her five children, two of whom are black.

"I'm glad that everyone can have the opportunities, no matter what they look like," added her 16-year-old Caucasian son, Taylon.

Sara Lewis, vice president of fundraising and advertising for the BYU Black Student Union began the celebration by expressing gratitude for King's example.

"He stood up for the right things for all the right reasons," she said. "He didn't push for revenge...he just pushed for change."

Yet there was plenty to be upset about.

Keynote speaker Darius Gray spoke about the historical injustices suffered by blacks through decades of slavery and segregation — not to stir up anger, but to increase education and deepen perspectives.

"If we don't know our history, our views become distorted," explained Gray, an author, broadcast journalist and past president of the Genesis Group, a support group for black members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Gray was also one of two black students who attended BYU in 1965.

He began his brief "history lesson" Monday night by reminding the group about the thousands of dedicated, yet unheralded, black soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War.

From there, he spoke about the tragedy of slavery, the three-fifths clause in the Constitution and the infamous Dred Scott decision, which relegated slaves to three-fifths of a person for counting purposes and prevented citizenship for blacks.

"Think about that," he said. "Think of yourself as an individual who had been thinking you were a citizen who had worked, contributed, fought (for your country), and yet now you were being told you were not a citizen."

Even after President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and Congress passed the 13th, 14th and 15th constitutional amendments, discrimination persisted in the form of Jim Crow laws that kept blacks as second-class citizens.

"In my hometown in Colorado Springs, Colorado, I saw on the wall, in front of the ... country club, a sign that said, 'Dogs, Jews and Negros not allowed,'" Gray said.

Racism cropped up in Utah when employees at the Hotel Utah refused to provide a room to black Metropolitan Opera Contralto Marian Anderson in 1937, and in 1939 when realtor Sheldon Brewster proposed a section of Salt Lake City be designated as an African-American ghetto, Gray recounted.

"I was there when (the realtor) was pitching his cause," Gray said. "We must recognize our history is not that old."

Yet there were also those who championed equality, like the Salt Lake officials who refused to consider Brewster's blatantly racist suggestion, and Utah entertainment magnate Robert Freed, who after he bought the segregated Lagoon swimming pool, quickly opened it to blacks.

Gray pointed to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as legislation that finally ended voting discrimination and solidified rights for African Americans that had long been denied.

It was "a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield," Gray quoted President Lyndon B. Johnson from the bill's signing.

"We've come a long way as a nation," Gray said in closing, then added the gentle reminder - "(but the) task is not yet complete."

Email:sisraelsen@desnews.com

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