An elusive dream

Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Waterbury Republican American
Waterbury, CT

On a recent sunny morning, Lance Christie sits on a bench in Waterbury's Martin Luther King Park, homeless, jobless, penniless, directionless.

Fifty years ago today, King's march on Washington, D.C. — and the electrifying call to action that was his "I Have a Dream" speech — created a defining moment of the civil rights movement and set in motion reforms that transformed race relations and, indeed, the whole of society.

But not enough.

"There is no equality now in America," complains Christie, 41. "I can't get a job. Out here there's no jobs. Trayvon Martin never got justice. Look what happened on TV."

Across the way, at the opposite corner of a street also named for King, sits New Opportunities Inc., run by James Gatling, who, encouraged by the hope and motivation of the "I Have a Dream" speech, rose from the oppression of a segregated South to lead one of the state's largest social service agencies. The contrast could not be more pronounced.

Christie isn't the only unemployed African-American sitting in the park this day, nor the only one claiming King's dream has never come true. But others in the city's black community say they attribute their own successes to King's inspiring speech and all one need do is look at the president to see how far the country has come since Aug. 28, 1963.

But they, too, say gains still need to be made — and held.

ABOUT 11 A.M. ON THIS late August day, 54-year-old Linda Washington also sits in Martin Luther King Park while children run on the playground in front of her. The sprinkler, the water fountain and the bathroom at the park have been broken for years, she says, despite many complaints lodged with the city.

"You go up to Bunker Hill, you don't see this, ever," she says. "They got a nice park there. They got a nice bathroom. They got a sprinkler."

But at the park named for the man who encouraged equality for everyone, the bathroom door is rotted to pieces, prompting one man to wonder if it was acidic urine responsible for eating a gaping hole in the wood.

City parks supervisor James Nemec says the facilities were vandalized and stolen so often the department decided to stop fixing them.

Washington and several acquaintances populating the park benches are convinced it is color, not cost, at the root of the neglect.

"We should have a restroom, but we don't," she says. "It's not going to cost a million dollars to put a toilet and a water fountain here."

BY MANY MEASURES, the people who live around Martin Luther King Park and the street bearing his name are, indeed, unequal to the rest of the city population.

They're poorer. Almost 41 percent of the 2,273 households counted in Tract 3501 of the U.S. Census (which covers the area in and surrounding Martin Luther King Drive), earn less than $10,000 per year, compared with about 12 percent citywide. The median household income is $11,639, as opposed to $41,499 for the city as a whole.

They're less educated. Of the more than 3,000 adults over the age of 25 counted by the census in the tract, almost 1,000 — more than 31 percent — never finished high school, compared with 12.5 percent citywide. Only 52 residents here have a university graduate or professional degree — fewer than 2 percent — compared to 6.2 percent citywide.

Their families are split. Fewer than 12 percent identified themselves as being in a husband-and-wife relationship, and of those, fewer than 4 percent were raising children under 18 together. Yet, almost 10 percent of women said they were raising children with no husband present. Fewer than 2 percent of men said the same of themselves for the census.

Almost all of them are renters. The census counted just four owner-occupied homes in the tract.

A failure of King's dream for African Americans? This same census data suggests not. Black people make up less than a quarter of the population of this section of town, still considered the epicenter of the region's largest African-American community. According to the census, more than 54 percent of the people in Tract 3501 identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino.

To Gatling, that makes no difference: King's crusade was not just on behalf of African-Americans.

"People of color have benefited from Dr. King, but also I think all of America benefited from him," he says. "Poverty doesn't have any color. He was there for everybody."

Gatling's organization is there for everybody, too. Five decades after the Civil Rights Movement that helped create it, NOW's programs serve a poor population that is predominantly white.

VICKI COPELAND ALSO had a dream. Working as a collections agent for the state, she always wanted to run her own clothing store.

She says she doesn't quite remember what prompted her to finally make the move, but she drew strength from King's words.

"It gives you the incentive to live by his vision," the 40-year-old mother of two says. "Do I think we're there yet? No. I think there's still a lot to do. But it opened the door for African-Americans to get there."

And now she opens doors as a volunteer for Granville Academy, the city-based after-school program that introduces minority children to opportunities and experiences outside the city.

That work inspired Copeland to expand her vision. She quit her job and opened Mahogany-Sun Boutique in downtown Waterbury.

JAMES GATLING WAS IN the 10th grade when King made his famed speech in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial.

His high school was segregated; his textbooks outdated hand-me-downs from the white schools.

"The thing is, in the South, because of the segregated system, all of my teachers were black," he recalls, "and they all really worked with us so we could get to a level they couldn't accomplish because of their color."

For him, it worked. Since 1979, he's been the head of New Opportunities Inc., an anti-poverty agency created one year after the march on Washington.

"I think that being president of an organization like New Opportunities and growing it to having more than 500 people working there, I don't think 50 years ago I would have been in that position," he says.

So in that sense, he notes, great gains have been made.

But, he says,recent federal cutbacks to agencies like his are contrary to King's dream.

"We had a huge summer youth employment program; we had thousands of kids being employed in the summer so they could buy school clothes," he says. "Today ... it employs a few hundred. The federal government cut back on that, figured it was a waste. They didn't feel that it was needed."

And yet, he says, the government spends countless millions keeping a disproportionate number of black men incarcerated.

"It takes a whole community to get involved to try to help our young people," he says. "If we don't do something to get them in a situation where they can accomplish and achieve, they're going to do something dysfunctional, they'll go to prison and the government will spend thousands and thousands in that situation."

WARREN LEACH IS A FEW YEARS younger than Gatling, so King's movement was already having a positive effect on the black community as he grew up in the 1970s.

"I had a really good education ... I was one of the second youngest firefighters ever in this city," he says.

"Part of that opportunity was because they had a person in charge of minority hiring ... to promote parity with minorities on the fire department."

Like Gatling, he worries some of the gains King fought for are being lost.

"On the surface, it looks like if you work hard and do the right things, then absolutely you have the opportunity to succeed in America today.

"But when you look at the power structure of things, it seems like, 'We want you to live the American dream and want you to get ahead, just not too far.'"

This year, Leach helped organize the Spirit of Unity Concert in Library Park, meant to foster a feeling of community between the various populations of the city. It was an example, he says, of positive change he'd like to see others in the city's black community make.

"I believe there are opportunities out there, but we have to work a little harder to grasp them," he says. "I think there's a level of self-responsibility that we don't always take."

BACK AT MARTIN LUTHER KING PARK, self-described community advocate Ronald Schofield, 57, feels let down by the government, but also by his own community.

"It's a shame over the years we have had no black leadership. We don't even have a NAACP in this city. It's a joke. We can't get together and stay strong for nothing. It's sad."

He and his friends at the park say they feel powerless and voiceless, trapped in a rundown part of the city where they're being marginalized.

For the public to know this, they say, there is no need for a newspaper reporter to pester them with questions. All anyone needs to do is drive by the park, look at whose name is on the sign, and consider whether it is a fitting legacy.

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