Last year, Governor Terry Branstad made only a brief appearance and declined to give a speech at the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event in Des Moines. He wasn’t dumb enough to make that mistake twice.
No one would mistake me for a fan of Branstad’s, but blowing off last year’s MLK event last year was a particularly classless move by the governor. The Iowa Department of Human Rights and the Iowa Commission on the Status of African-Americans have been organizing this event for more than 20 years. After signing a proclamation, Branstad said he was too busy to deliver his planned speech, having just been inaugurated three days earlier. His communications director told the media the governor was busy with unspecified private meetings that day. Give me a break. Branstad had no trouble making time to sign a directive immediately after his inaugural that will disproportionately disenfranchise African-American Iowans.
This year Branstad praised Dr. King’s legacy in his speech and stayed for the entire event at the Iowa Historical Building.
The keynote speaker was Dr. William Anderson, a colleague of King’s, who graduated from Des Moines University and is now vice president of academic affairs at Detroit Medical Center. Seven of his children and grandchildren are osteopathic physicians.
Of King, Anderson said: “He was absolutely fearless.”
When people told King he’d be killed for what he was doing, Anderson said, “He said, ‘If I am killed it will be in the name of truth and justice.’”
Anderson noted the country has a black president, and so does DMU.
Des Moines University’s current president is Dr. Angela Franklin.
The Iowa Department of Human Rights gave out three awards today. Two women received Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Awards. Dr. Mary Sconiers Johnson was honored for her work as Vice President of the Community and Workforce Partnerships Division in the Des Moines Area Community College.
This Division is charged with the responsibility to increase access to postsecondary education and services for underserved and underrepresented populations in the metro Des Moines area.
Betty Johnson of Marion was recognized for work on improving public health:
Johnson was nominated for the award by the American Cancer Society for her work in establishing and leading the Body and Soul program in Iowa. Body and Soul, which operates out of First Light Christian Church, aims to improve the health of African Americans through a program of education based in neighborhood churches.
“It’s recruiting and empowering members in each of the churches to address the health-care needs of their congregations,” said Johnson.
Johnson and a group of volunteers give presentations at local churches, offering recipes and suggestions for healthier diets and exercise. They organize and promote prostate exams for men and mammograms for women, and in general get the word out.
“You have to be creative when you’re working with the underserved,” she said. “They don’t have transportation, they don’t get the newspaper, so you’ve got to get the message right there in front of them. We literally walk the streets with pamphlets and fliers.”
Johnson and the other volunteers – “everything is a collaborative effort” – are also working with area growers to improve distribution of fresh vegetables in low-income neighborhoods.
“Going to the supermarket, the worst food is the most affordable,” she said. “We distributed a lot of food to people who normally wouldn’t get it.”
The MLK Service Project award went to Kent Sissel of Muscatine for his work to honor the legacy of Alexander Clark:
Clark was a passionate defender of equal rights for blacks during the mid 1800s. He fought to integrate Muscatine schools 86 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ordered it done across the nation in 1954 and was a post-war leader in persuading the Iowa Legislature to adopt constitutional amendments to strike “white” from its definition of “people.”
Sissel has been restoring and preserving the Alexander Clark house – where he also lives – for more than 30 years.
He’s also leading a project seeking National Historic Landmark status and National Network to Freedom Underground Railroad designation for the property located at the center of a two-block Alexander Clark Heritage District named by the City of Muscatine in 2010.
Sissel said February activities related to the Alexander Clark Project will include a new documentary on Clark’s life, scheduled to air on Iowa Public Television at 6:30 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 7.
I am embarrassed to say that I hadn’t heard of Clark before. The Muscatine Journal reported on the documentary film last March:
Most Muscatine residents and many Iowans know the Alexander Clark story – how he fought to integrate Muscatine schools 86 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ordered it done across the nation in 1954.
Jacob Rosdail figures the rest of the nation deserves to know more about one of Muscatine’s favorite sons.
Rosdail, 28, an Oskaloosa filmmaker, is producing a film about Clark that will be aired not only on Iowa Public Television next February, but also on WNET, New York City’s public television station.
On Thursday, he and director Marc Rosenwasser of New York and technical director Aaron Riggs of Oskaloosa visited the Clark house, owned by Kent Sissel, to interview Sissel and history buff Dan Clark on camera and to shoot scenes from Muscatine’s downtown. The team plans to return later this month to finish filming.
Rosdail’s organization, the Communication Research Institute of William Penn University, produced “Searching for Buxton,” a documentary on how an Iowa mining town became an oasis for racial harmony about 100 years ago. That film was also aired on both networks.
Any comments about today’s holiday or the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are welcome in this thread. Here are a few more links:
This slide show at the Mother Jones site covers “How We Got MLK Day and Who Stood in the Way.”
From this page of famous quotes by the civil rights leader, here’s one of my favorites: “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”
In this excerpt from an April 1967 sermon, Dr. King explained why he opposed the war in Vietnam.
The AFSCME blog compiled some of the civil rights leader’s comments about labor issues.
Susannah Heschel describes the relationship between Dr. King and her father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
January 23 UPDATE: I learned over the weekend that Dr. King spoke at Central College in Pella in March 1967. Here’s a photo from his visit. A Central College faculty member who lived in Pella at that time described his visit and how exciting it was for the students and faculty at the time. One funny side note: a bunch of racist jerks put up billboards on the highway from Des Moines to Pella (“Communist” etc.) in advance of King’s visit. But something happened with his flight, so instead of flying into Des Moines as planned, he flew into the small airport in Ottumwa and was driven up to Pella from the southeast. Consequently, he didn’t have to see any of the obnoxious billboards set up to “welcome” him to Iowa.