Celebration honors civil rights leader
Nearly 40 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. people across the world gathered Monday, on the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, to remember his legendary message of non-violence and his legacy of tolerance.
At the Yavapai College Performance Hall in Prescott, people from the tri-city area also came together to enjoy fellowship between races and religions, to celebrate how far the nation has come in the struggle against discrimination, and to learn about how far we still have to go.
The Temple B'rith Shalom Choir sang several songs in Hebrew, the Sacred Heart Catholic Church's Latino Choir performed a song in Spanish, and the Unity Church's Choir also sang. These performances reflected King's role as a minister, and his determination to achieve ecumenical, as well as racial, solidarity.
Members of the Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe's Native Life Skills Youth group offered a prayer of blessing in their native language. Linda Ogo then translated, "Creator, our father who sits in the heavens above, we thank you."
Nicosia Garrison performed the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing," also known as the "Negro National Anthem." It featured lyrics such as: "Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us; sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us."
Pocahontas Gertler read the speech that King's wife, Coretta Scott King, gave in 2003, "The Meaning of the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday," which she summed up as the will to "dream the possible dream" that King fought for all his life.
"It is not a black holiday," Gertler said, quoting Coretta King. "It is a people's holiday."
She said that King answered the nation's collective longing to become a country that "lived by its noblest principles," and that King himself was a man who risked his life for the ideals of racial justice and equality, who suffered numerous hardships and ultimately gave up his life as a martyr for that cause.
"There is no other day that brings people of all races and religions together in such a way," she said. "It is a day that is, above all, a day of service," she quoted, referring to the community service aspect of the holiday. She said it was a day in which people can walk in the "light of creative altruism" or dwell in the darkness of selfishness.
The keynote speaker for the event, Heidi Beirich, began her speech with the words, "I'm gonna talk about hate," reminding the audience that the fight against hate and intolerance is not over. Beirich is Director of Research for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project.
"The Southern Poverty Law Center is a civil rights organization founded in 1971 to take on unfinished civil rights battles," Beirich explained, giving examples of cases where a YMCA was going to fill in its pools with cement rather than allow desegregated swimming, and a state trooper group that would not allow black members, prior to SPLC's legal intervention.
Beirich said the SPLC mission is still the same, but they have expanded their approach to fighting hate. The legal arm of the organization will engage in lawsuits against hate groups in order to "shut them down through financial damages." Beirich's section, the Intelligence Project, works to monitor the locations and activities of hate groups nationwide, while performing investigative journalism to expose their activities.
"I have the unsavory task of reading hate publications every month," Beirich said. "We make an annual 'hate map' that shows where all the hate groups are in the United States."
According to the group's research, the primary hate groups active in the United States are the Neo Nazis and the Klu Klux Klan. She said the Skinheads are also substantial in number, calling them "street-level terrorists" and saying that they commit the majority of violent hate crimes. The group Christian Identity, a group that portrays Jewish people as "spawn of Satan" is also a prevalent hate group that her organization
"This is Arizona," Beirich said, pointing to the hate map. "You don't have that many hate groups, and that's a good thing."
Beirich said that the Intelligence Project works with law enforcement and other agencies to track hate groups, but that they also depend on citizen reports of hate group activity in order to accurately monitor any given area.
"These groups have some truly sick and twisted ideas guiding them," Beirich said. "When we shut one down, it's a cause to celebrate."
For more information on the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, see the website www.splcenter.org/intel/intpro.jsp.
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