Growing up, I had always learned about the importance of Martin Luther King, Jr. in history class, but because it wasn’t something I had experienced personally, it stopped there. With the facts. And statistics. Sure, I completely supported the movement and what it ultimately (though at a high price) accomplished for the equality of all races in this country. However, I had not truly seen firsthand the effects of racial inequality on a community.
Now working and living in Alabama (especially Tuskegee) has given me a new perspective on the civil rights movement and richness of African American history. I have met people who were kids when Tuskegee High School was integrated. I have spoken to pastors, educators, and local entrepreneurs about the changes that have taken place in this historic town since the 1960’s, some successes, and others repercussions.
In those days, Tuskegee was a thriving little city. The university, founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881, attracted top students from all over the country, and provided invaluable resources, both scholarly and fiscally, to the community. Farmers and business owners, both black and white, prospered, and life in the small rural city went on. Tuskegee became well known over the years for distinct personalities such as agricultural scientist George Washington Carver and the famed World War II Tuskegee Airmen.
After having spent 8 months in Tuskegee, I have heard countless stories about how the city has evolved and the issues it currently faces. Years after integration in 1963 came a period of white flight. With the families went local businesses, jobs, and much potential for economic development. The standard of living significantly decreased for those who stayed behind. Whereas in 1960, the population of Tuskegee was quite diverse, it is now 95% African American. The population overall has decreased 20% since 2000.
Now, 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement, we still have not achieved the goal. Inequality, racism, and suffering still exist in our society. While all people have the right to vote, sadly we do not all have the right to live in a neighborhood safe from crime, guarantee our children an excellent education, or secure a well-paying job. Poverty is the reality in the darkest corners of our country – whether Tuskegee or our own hometowns.
How is God calling us to address this? MLK Jr.’s answer is service and love. He claims, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: what are you doing for others?” Seeing the movie Selma, I was utterly moved by the way an entire nation came together to protest in a non-violent way, despite the violence they faced from police, for a basic human right. The leaders of the movement didn’t just toss around ideas to achieve voting rights; they did something about it. How far will talking about social problems get us on the road to a more peaceful and just society? At what point will we choose to act?
I have been moved by the tireless dedication of some of the community’s leaders, specifically local pastors, to make Tuskegee a better place to live. Efforts like Stop the Violence Campaign, the Youth Safe Haven program, and ARM’s Sonshine Kids Day Camp have already played a huge part in providing enriching activities for kids. Last May, as part of the Summer Mission Camp experience, we interviewed some community members on the positive aspects of living in Tuskegee. One man said, “I personally am excited for the growth here in this community. I’m pro-Tuskegee.”
How are you called to address crime, poverty, or racism in your community? Would you consider yourself “pro-(insert town here)”, someone who would advocate for the rights of your people? In Psalm 82:3-4, The Lord calls us to “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” I see clearly now that the battle Martin Luther King, Jr. begun is not yet over. There is much work to be done, both here in the South and nation-wide. Let us prayerfully consider how to move toward a more just society.