Locals say civil rights work remains

A picture of Martin Luther King Jr. faces the audience as keynote speaker Pastor Davis Swann speaks at the 12th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast Saturday at Clovis High school. CNJ staff photo: Eric Kluth

By Jack King

Although the civil rights movement has made great strides since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., three Clovis residents still see room for improvement.
Freddie Perkins Sr., who operates an accounting firm on Clovis’ Main Street, said King’s work resulted in improvements for black Americans, but equality has not been fully achieved and King’s philosophy has profound implications for today’s society.
“I was born in Lake Providence, La. The type of housing I was raised in was a typical plantation-type housing. The place was called Hollow Brook Plantation. My parents owned their house and an 80-acre farm where they raised cotton. But, the situation caused them to stay permanently in debt to the owner of the plantation.
“We’d pick a wagon-load of cotton and take it to the gin and the man would weigh it and total that up, but we wouldn’t get money for it. We’d go to the store and get items on credit and at the end of the year he would balance our bill against what we’d made from cotton. Ninety percent of the time we’d come out with a negative balance,” Perkins said.
“I graduated from high school in 1960. In my 12th grade, the books we were using were the same ones my white counterparts were using in the ninth grade. We didn’t have algebra or trigonometry or any foreign language. That puts you automatically behind. It puts the lie to ‘separate but equal,’” he said.
Today, opportunities for blacks are much greater. But there are more subtle barriers and legacies of discrimination to overcome, Perkins said.
“Right now, housing is basically predicated on your ability to pay. But, the difficult aspect to overcome is to get that job — even if you’re qualified. The most devastating thing for many black people is the credit report,” he said.
Although, school opportunities have improved, many blacks still feel “behind,” he said.
“When you are possessed of an inferiority complex, it’s quite hard to get away from it. In my experience, students’ inferiority complex is 50 percent psychological and 50 percent from experience. The power of persuasion can sometimes delineate that negativity,” he said.
King’s theory of non-violence includes principles of information gathering; personal commitment; the use of moral, not physical, force; and reconciliation. Those principles can be applied anywhere, including in the schools, he said.
“King had the idea that if we can extend our mind to embrace the concept of unity the whole world would be better. For some reason, our society has not embraced that principle, even in our schools,” he said.
Ben Salazar, a free-lance writer, marketing consultant, former coordinator of ethnic affairs at Clovis Community College and former coordinator of Chicano studies at Eastern New Mexico University, has lived most of his life in Clovis. He said Martin Luther King inspired him with the ideal of activism.
“It was his passion and conviction for a just cause, without any worry about professional gain. In my life there have been jobs and opportunities compromised because I was vocal about injustices, but that’s just fine, because nobody can say I’m a token,” he said.
As a teenager, Salazar was influenced by a Clovis woman named Martina Chavez, who, in the spirit of the ’60s, staged protests to keep a school on the town’s west side when the old La Casita School was closed.
“She said, ‘It’s not just about a building. When those kids walk on the west side and see a school in their neighborhood, it’s about motivating them to want an education, to go on and build something with their lives.’ It just blew me away and taught me about education,” he said.
He said one of the things he and his friends’ absorbed from King’s crusade was the concept of “identity.”
“I am a human being first and a Hispanic second, but, because I am a human being, I should be treated fairly,” he said.
Yet the concept of “identity” became corrupted in the ’80s and ’90s, he said.
“It became about money and greed, what’s in it for me,” he said. “I think that’s what made Martin Luther King such a great man, he didn’t want all that. He was going just for rights for people who were human beings.”
Dick Smith, formerly administrator of Plains Regional Medical Center, now director of marketing at Clovis Community College, grew up in southeast Missouri, about 15 miles from Arkansas and 50 miles from Tennessee. He said King inspired him to begin a journey of understanding about race relations.
“I remember going to county fairs in Arkansas and seeing ‘White’ and ‘Colored’ eating shelters and drinking fountains. In the area where I grew up people were very prejudiced. It was considered normal,” he said.
“My mother would say, ‘That’s not a good way to be. You treat all people the same.’ But it wasn’t until I went into the Air Force that I began to understand institutional racism and that it isn’t just about how you treat people personally,” he said.
The civil rights furor that Smith, like many in the ’60s, watched on TV was “a scary time,” he said.
“‘Why do these people hate me?’ I asked. ‘Are there going to be race wars?’”
But King’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech was “a central piece of oratory in the late part of the 20th century,” Smith said.
“It was about the same time as the space program and when I heard King say that someday the sons of slaves and the sons of slave owners would walk together across the red hills of Georgia — where I grew up that was almost as fantastic as putting a man on the moon,” he said.
“Then, as I grew older and read his writings and books about him, you simply have to say ‘That was a really brave man,’” he added.
“I really think Dr. King helped us open up, to the potential for all people, to the differences in people and the richness of different cultures. I think the attitude that we all need to be treated as equals, which also shows up in movements like womens’ liberation, came from him. He has made us all better human beings,” he said.