Sherry Patterson, a black woman living in Juneau, remembers going to segregated schools in Oakdale, La., until high school. She still cringes when she recalls that her mother would say "Yes, ma'am" when addressing a young white girl.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Celebration of his life
When: 2-4 p.m. Monday, Jan. 20.
Where: Centennial Hall.
What: Prayers, songs, dances and speeches.
So she has reason to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday. The Black Awareness Association in Juneau, for which she is the events coordinator, will hold a ceremony from 2 to 4 p.m. at Centennial Hall to celebrate King's life.
"They want you to feel that you're less than," she said, remembering the effect of segregation on a child.
"The day we were bused (to an integrated high school), white kids were taunting us. Police escort. It was something else. We lived it. And Martin came along and did something about it."
Michelle Monts, vice president of the Black Awareness Association, said she recently asked her children - one a college student, the other in high school - what they thought it meant to be black in today's culture.
"They both talked about feeling responsible for carrying on, not just of leaders but of family members who had struggled for equality," Monts said.
"Martin Luther King embodied the hope of a race of people. Even if it was during a time when everyone had a desire to be free, he was able to do it without alienating the larger body of people," she said.
Black History Month events
Feb. 8: Display at Nugget Mall, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Feb. 15: Evening of Entertainment, Catholic Church Parish Hall, 430 Fifth St., 4-8 p.m., food, entertainment, guest speaker Dr. Lester Monts.
Feb. 19-21: The Rev. Henry Hankins of Jacksonville, Miss., at Restoration Grace Church, 5636 Glacier Highway, 7 p.m.
Feb. 22: Dinner for the Rev. Hankins, 5-8 p.m., Buoy Deck at Coast Guard station.
Feb. 23: The Rev. Hankins at Restoration Grace Church, 10 a.m.
Feb. 28: Black and Blue Ball (leather and jeans), Mardis Gras theme, 8 p.m.-1 a.m., ANB Hall. Couple $25. Single $15.
Association members said Monday's event will be one of the more elaborate celebrations of King's birthday in Juneau's history. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a holiday for city, state and federal workers and the public schools.
Juneau's celebration will include prayers by several pastors, songs by the Alaska Children's Choir and Patterson, a dance by the Native group All Nations' Children, a dramatic presentation by sixth-grader Kerwin Washington, a keynote address by state Sen. Bettye Davis of Anchorage, and the singing of "We Shall Overcome."
King, who was instrumental in the civil rights movement and who was associated with nonviolent methods such as marches, sit-ins and boycotts, was murdered in 1968.
"I remember as a child seeing (King's funeral) on TV," Patterson said. "It was a very sad day. I lived in the prejudice and the lynchings and the cross burnings. I lived all of that - the back door at the doctor's office and the balconies at the theater.
"To me, he was a Moses, he was a modern-day Moses."
Monts, who grew up in Little Rock, Ark., a stronghold of segregation, also remembers the day King died.
"Mother said, 'Come into this house.' People running down the streets. People angry. It was like devastation."
Monts said, "I think there are only a few people that are called at certain times of history. He was not the only person (in the civil rights movement), but he was the one that could be heard by everyone."
Black Awareness Association
Meetings: At 2 p.m. on third Saturday of each month at 5636 Glacier Highway, across from AEL&P.
Membership: Open to all.
Address: P.O. Box 34272, Juneau AK 99803
Patterson, Monts and association President Tyrone Jones said things have changed for the better for African-Americans since the 1950s and '60s, but there is still work to be done to achieve equality.
"I look at CNN and I see where the president spoke out against affirmative action on college campuses," Jones said. "I think things have changed, but I think there's a lot more to do.
"... I know the playing field isn't level, but the odds are a lot better today than they were in the '50s and '60s. You have more people of all races taking the fight for equal justice for all."
He said King's birthday is a time for all people to reflect on the man's contributions in a "peaceful fight for equality," lessons that can be applied to today's international conflicts.
"If we can take anything from this, it's a little love, communication and patience can solve anything," Jones said.
The Black Awareness Association, composed of about 25 families, also is sponsoring a number of events during Black History Month in February.
The events include a historical display at the Nugget Mall on Feb. 8, an evening of entertainment Feb. 15 at the Catholic parish hall downtown, four gospel events Feb. 19-22 at Restoration Grace Outreach Center, and the Black and Blue Ball, referring to leather and jeans, Feb. 28 at ANB Hall.
The Feb. 15 event, which is co-sponsored by Catholic Community Service, includes a speech by Dr. Lester Monts, a professor of music and senior vice provost for academic affairs at the University of Michigan. He is a recognized scholar of the music and culture in the Guinea coast region of West Africa.
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com.