More than five decades after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired millions of Americans by describing his dream, the Rev. Norwood Thompson Jr. is having a nightmare.
Communities — particularly communities of color — are plagued by violence, poverty and distrust. And instead of villages raising children, as the African proverb dictates, “children are raising themselves,” the New Orleans minister told dozens of elected officials, ministers and advocates who gathered on City Hall’s steps Monday to celebrate King’s birthday.
The sentiment that today’s America is a far cry from the country King so eloquently envisioned was frequently repeated at New Orleans’ remembrance of the slain civil rights leader. It was the 30th annual celebration of the holiday honoring King, who was born Jan. 15, 1929, and would have turned 87 this year. He was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968.
City officials have annually marked the holiday with a march to the King monument on Martin Luther King Boulevard and other events, while Jefferson Parish hosts parades and programs on both sides of the Mississippi River.
Monday’s march in New Orleans featured performing groups, school bands, fraternities, sororities and advocacy groups, who accompanied local, state and national leaders on their nearly 2-mile walk to the King monument.
Parades in Kenner and Marrero also were scheduled, as were marches in LaPlace and Edgard.
Thompson, who heads a commission charged with planning the annual events in the city, was joined by dozens of other religious leaders Monday. Notably, New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond; Imam Rafeeq NuMan, of the Masjid ur-Rahim on North Johnson Street; and Rabbi Ed Cohn, of Temple Sinai New Orleans on St. Charles Avenue, were among leaders of various faiths who prayed for peace at the event and extolled King’s leadership.
The keynote speaker, U.S. Rep Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, gave what he called a “state of the dream” speech, in which he tied President Barack Obama’s accomplishments to King’s dream of change and called upon citizens to improve their communities.
Many working families today “are in a plight similar to sharecroppers,” Richmond said, and today’s children have better access “to guns and drugs than to textbooks and computers.”
To remedy those issues, he said, middle-class black people must work to create better outcomes for their lower-income peers and white people must include blacks in conversations about bettering black communities .
New Orleans is already on the right path, he added, highlighting the city’s 2013 “ban-the-box” initiative, which removed questions about criminal histories from city job applications, and a retooled disadvantaged business enterprise program, which is aimed at making sure small and disadvantaged firms get their share of city contracts.
Stepping on the podium last was Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who called upon citizens to “not fall into the trap of an eye for an eye” and instead seek to remedy situations peacefully. Such measures will ensure “that when we come back next year, the state of the dream has taken a few steps forward,” Landrieu said.
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.