Those who missed attending the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration hosted by Juneau’s Black Awareness Association Monday at St. Paul’s Catholic Church missed out not only on moving musical performances, a dramatic reading of Dr. King’s famous “I have a dream” speech and the words of leaders representing Juneau’s diverse community, but also missed an opportunity to hear real testimony to how Juneau does on issues of equality. According to speakers at the event, themed “Living the Dream,” Juneau does quite well, but we’re not to the end of the journey to equality yet.
“Dr. King said of racism that it separates not only bodies, but minds and spirits. Let all of us live his dream and do our best to overcome prejudice, homophobia, sexism and other discrimination.” Sen. Dennis Egan said.
He closed saying, “Let Juneau, our region, and our state lead the way in supporting equality for all.”
Egan was the first of a number of speakers, introduced by Shirley Workman as master of ceremonies. Egan was followed by community leaders like Sally Smith representing Sen. Mark Begich, Mike Tagaban representing Juneau’s Alaska Native community, Geny Del Rosario representing the Filipino community, Daymond Geary and Richard Green representing the faith community, Black Awareness Association President Sherry Patterson, and U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Mickey Sanders. Music was another important part of the festivities, with Patterson, Salissa Thole, and the Alaska Youth Choir led by Missouri Smyth performing songs of faith and freedom, and on a couple occasions inviting attendees to join in. Rousing the audience with his dramatic reading of the “I have a dream” speech was Glenn Mitchell.
Smith spoke of Dr. King’s ability to inspire and passed on sentiments from Sen. Begich.
“I can think of no better model than Dr. King. Two important words were always part of his vocabulary: Respect and nonviolence,” Smith communicated for Alaska’s junior senator.
More moving than the examples of how Dr. King inspired our statesmen were the personal stories from Patterson and Lt. Sanders, who experienced racism and discrimination acutely growing up in the South. Even Patterson expressed surprise in a brief interview after the event at the harsh experiences of Lt. Sanders and his wife Naomi.
Lt. Sanders said he grew up in South Carolina in a small town nicknamed “The Bottom” because, he said, “You couldn’t get any lower… But don’t feel any pity for me, I’m actually proud of where I came from, because it gave me a strong background.”
Lt. Sanders described the hard work of his Army veteran father, who as a child cut the grass for a white woman who made him ride in the trunk so he couldn’t be seen.
“Sometimes my mom used to keep me home from school because the Klan was marching through my neighborhood,” said the 34-year-old.
That’s not a typo, Lt. Sanders is only 34 and these experiences took place during the 1980s and ‘90s. At a young age, he worked picking peanuts for $5 a bucket, which takes a long time, and worked picking weeds in cotton fields for $1 a row. He owes his work ethic to his father, who taught him that hard work and education were the way to a better life.
“When I met my wife, I was working at a factory making $9.66 an hour and I had maxed out…” Lt. Sanders said, “And my wife said to me, “If you wanna be with me, you’ve gotta do something with yourself.”
Naomi Sanders served four years in the U.S. Coast Guard and Lt. Sanders still serves in Juneau. After officer training he told her he wanted to leave the South, that he didn’t want to raise his children there because, he said, “Let’s be honest, there’s a lot of racism that still goes on in the South.”
It’s through his USCG service that the family ended up in Juneau in 2008 and they said they love the community and would like to stay here.
“(Dr. King) could have cared less about celebrating his name,” Lt. Sanders said, “What he cared about was us coming together to share our vision and goals for this community, so the youth here have the success that we’re allowed to enjoy.”
Patterson hadn’t planned on sharing personal stories of her experiences growing up in Louisiana, experiences made more real to her adult children recently when she took them back and gave them a tour.
“I remember, in high school they bussed us in and I remember the first day at the white school, and they didn’t want us there — matter of fact, they were throwing rocks at us and didn’t want to let us off the bus, all that stuff. But you know what, I’m here today, and I thank God for freedom,” Patterson said.
“I’m blessed today that my children will never have to experience that garbage that I had to walk through. And I am blessed today that my children are living the dream. And that it’s gonna get better. We’re not already there yet,” Patterson said, “it’s getting there.”
Geary, of the Breakthrough Church, spoke from the perspective of a white man who grew up in the South during that time when racism was so prevalent, and how he learned by his positive experiences with black fellow soldiers during his service to not be racist.
“I found out all of that stuff I heard as a young boy was so wrong.” Geary said, “…there was a commonality, and thank god for a man like Dr. King, like Reverend King.”
As Workman pointed out in her remarks, Dr. King’s efforts transcend to other cultures. His actions and their effects make him a hero to not just black people, but anyone.
Tagaban, of the Thunderbird House, Auke Village, said Dr. King helped to shape him.
“In our house we have a saying: “Honor the gift,”” Tagaban said, “Dr. Martin Luther King had many gifts — and he was a gift… Today we can all live the dream by living the gifts: courage, truth, purpose and conscience … This is how one man or one woman can make a difference for future generations.”
Del Rosario said she is living the dream as a Filipino immigrant to the U.S., and she said she was proud of the cross-section of Juneau’s population that turned out to celebrate Dr. King that day.
The event may have been hosted by the Black Awareness Association, but as Del Rosario and Patterson pointed out, it was for and about the community as a whole.
“You know, I don’t take for granted that we’re here today, many different cultures, I don’t take that for granted…” Patterson said, listing many simple things many of us might take for granted, including everyone meeting that afternoon at the church, “I am blessed to be standing here, who I am, with you today, and we can be here without sneaking to do it, we can do it because it’s our right, and we have the freedom and the liberty to do it.”
As for how Juneau can improve, Pastor Green of the Valley Church of God talked about how most cities have a Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Although Juneau doesn’t have one (yet), he said, there is a metaphorical road we ought to be traveling, a road described by Green and Patterson as long, tough, rough, but also as the high road — the road to equality.
Both Lt. and Naomi Sanders said education was the path to equality. Lt. Sanders said it was his focus on education and discipline, instilled by his father, that allowed him to get where he is today. He said he tries to instill the same in their children. Naomi Sanders expressed appreciation for the experiences her children have had in Juneau schools and for the opportunities for her and her husband to share their culture in the classroom. It’s a long way away from being threatened by the Ku Klux Klan and the segregation she and her husband experienced growing up.
And, as evident by Geary’s transformation, education is not only about school and higher learning, but about the eradication of ignorance and discrimination so everyone has an equal opportunity to live their dreams.
If you’ve read this far and are regretting missing Monday’s celebration or want more, don’t fret, the Black Awareness Association will be holding more events in the months to come and, Patterson said, the Association is open to any and all who are interested in supporting and promoting African American culture in Juneau.
For more about the Association or upcoming events, email firstname.lastname@example.org, find them on Facebook by searching “Black Awareness Association, Juneau,” or contact Sherry Patterson at 957-0630.
• Contact reporter Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at email@example.com.
(This article has been modified to show the correct branch of service in which Naomi Sanders served for four years.)