Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'Dream' lives on in the Rogue Valley

Live in Southern Oregon for 10 minutes and you know there aren't a lot of African-Americans here.

"And I think I know them both," Larry Miller says.

Miller, a news anchor for KOBI-TV in Medford, was master of ceremonies at Medford's celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day Sunday. When he moved to the Rogue Valley from Pittsburgh, Pa., three years ago, he often found that he was the only black person in the room. Joking aside, he says that doesn't bother him.

"Moving from a big city to a small town was more of a culture shock," he says.

Miller and other high-profile African-Americans in the valley say they see the King holiday as a time for taking stock of how far our nation has come in terms of ending racism and ensuring equal rights and opportunities for all its citizens — and how far it still has to go.

"It's a time to look at history," Miller says.

King, a Baptist minister like his father, rose to prominence in the civil rights movement while still in his 20s, leading the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama and helping to found the civil rights group Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957.

He gave his now-iconic "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington, D.C.

Although King was unwavering in his insistence on nonviolence, the FBI, under Director J. Edgar Hoover, spied on him and sought to discredit him until King's death. As the 1960s wore on, King also faced opposition from more militant black advocacy groups.

King moved beyond civil rights and began to address issues of poverty and the Vietnam War. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. A national holiday in his honor was established in 1986.

Miller was used to sticking out even before he moved to Medford. In Pittsburgh, he worked at a rape crisis center dedicated to preventing sexual violence. He was the only black man on a staff of about 50 people, most of them women, most of them white.

"You have to come with an open mind," he says, "and be open to the experience."

He says he's had a few uncomfortable moments in the Rogue Valley, such as the time somebody called his hair "nappy."

"I told them that was offensive," he says.

He chalks incidents like that up to misunderstanding, and quickly moves on.

"You have to have a thick skin in this business," he says. "Some people are going to love you, others are going to be extremely critical."

Southern Oregon has been predominantly white. Before that it was almost exclusively white. When Claudia Alick told friends in New York City about the numerous King Day events in the valley, they seemed surprised.

"They were like, wow, in Southern Oregon they're doing that?"

Alick, a curator and producer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, grew up in a now-30-something generation that came along after the civil rights leader's death. She says she thinks the holiday is an important one for focusing attention on the long, often bitter struggle for civil rights.

Alick grew up in Memphis, Tenn., where King was shot to death at age 39 on April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Increasingly focused on poverty, King had gone to Memphis to support striking garbage workers.

Alick's mother marched in the civil rights movement of the day, and Alick as a girl sometimes heard her talk about it.

"I always felt a direct connection," she says.

Not all her friends agree that the day is important. She asked a friend married to a woman of color why she hadn't seen him at last year's Ashland event.

"I'm not interested in being in a room with a bunch of white people patting themselves on the back," the man said.

Alick says the dream King was murdered for was not a dream for black people or white people but for all people.

"You have to remember what the sacrifices were," Alick says. "You have to celebrate what you're doing now. I want everybody to leave (the celebration) feeling good. They should feel good."

D.L. Richardson didn't feel good at all when, as a boy, he used to watch the Ku Klux Klan march through the streets of Selma, Ala., where he grew up.

"I dealt with racism as a kid," he says. "The Rotary and the Lions were the Klan. The same guys. They'd meet and put on their sheets."

Selma was a civil rights ground zero, the site of "Bloody Sunday" and two other dangerous marches for voting rights. In March 1965, police attacked marchers, including women and children, with tear gas and billy clubs. The TV images stunned the nation. Later that month, marchers protected by federal troops made it to Montgomery, the state capital. The Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights Trail is now a U.S. National Historic Trail.

Richardson, who teaches a class in civil rights and the media, says it's difficult for young people today to grasp the intransigence of the entrenched racism of the day.

"Believe it, yes. Understand, no," he says.

"White and black kids, it's important we give these kids an understanding. It wasn't that long ago these people were dying to have the right to vote."

He says he's faced racism in Oregon as well as in Dixie.

"The difference in this area and the South is in the South, I know you're racist," he says. "In the valley, we hide who we are."

He says he once heard the n-word hurled at him from the kitchen of a restaurant in Medford. A waitress heard it, too, and apologized. He respected her for that. But he and his friend found another place to eat.

Another time he was golfing in a foursome on the sixth hole of the Oak Knoll course in Ashland, which is close to the road, when youths in a passing pickup yelled to "get the n——-." He says his white golf buddies took it harder than he did.

"They were so disgusted," he says.

On the other hand, he points to some Aryan Nations racists he says were more or less run out of Grants Pass a few years back.

"You have to appreciate that," he says.

While Richardson came to Southern Oregon from the South, Manny Crump came from Southern California almost three decades ago. He was awarded a basketball scholarship to the Oregon Institute of Technology. He'd almost never been outside of L.A. when he landed in Klamath Falls.

"When I'd go in a restaurant people would turn and look," he says. "I didn't know if it was because I was OIT's big recruit or what. Or because I had braids.

"People were staring, so I'd catch their eye and they'd turn away."

He says he experienced some ugly things but didn't dwell on them.

"I don't want to tell you to put them in the paper," he says. "I overlook stuff like that. I didn't pay any attention."

Crump wound up running Manny's Basketball, a 50-team basketball league for kids in Medford, and managing apartments as a day job. He says things are different now.

"We live in a different time," he says. "I have hundreds of kids playing and competing. Everybody gets along. The kids have a great time. It's not an issue with today's kids like the older generation."

He says he's thankful to have had the opportunity to do some of the things he wanted to do in life, and that today's kids have more opportunities.

"If you look for stuff you'll find it," he says. "I don't look for it. Nowadays it's probably out there, but you don't notice it."

King ended his "I Have a Dream" speech with a vision of a day "when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!' "

Richardson says we're getting closer, but we aren't there.

"There is no finish line we can see," he says. "There're always going to be people who teach their kids it's OK to hate a group. But the cycles can be broken. The important thing is that we don't stop striving.

"I think we're getting closer. And I think there are always going to be problems. We have a long way to go."

Alick agrees.

"We are not post-racial yet," she says. "Injustice is everywhere. If you're a person of color, everything is harder. People of color have a lower life expectancy. But we're doing better.

"I don't know what the American dream fulfilled looks like, but we're not there yet. Let's hold hands and walk down that long road."

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