Local leaders reflect on racial justice challenges on MLK Day

As the region memorializes the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. this year, Black leaders of all ages are reminding the Dayton community that there is still work to be done.

Mattie White, Dayton Unit NAACP vice president, said the life and work of King serves as a model of advocating for civil rights, but that the presence of hatred and division is still creating a barrier for the advancement of those rights.

“We are in a time where legislation will determine if all people have a right to participate in this country’s democratic process,” White said. “Racism is an unnecessary and evil factor that is still keeping this country from living up to its true ideal.”

This year, King’s family has called for “no celebration without legislation,” encouraging people to forego the usual parades and fanfare of MLK Day and to instead demand the passage of voting rights legislation.

On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act. The bill includes calls to address voter access, election integrity, and civic participation and empowerment, among other issues. It will go before the Senate, where many expect it to stall for a second year.

“The (Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act) must be passed if America is going to deliver on the promissory note that Dr. King told us about; it is still due,” White said. “Even though Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights organizers and activists lost their lives for the right to vote, we are still here again having to advocate and push and proclaim that everyone has a right to vote, and to vote without duress or stress, and without having to encounter obstacles and barriers,” she said.

Besides voting rights, local leaders are focused on several other issues in their push for racial justice.

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Dayton Board of Education President Will Smith, 38, has a history of working on criminal justice campaigns and fighting for things like food equity and health and wellness within neighborhoods. He said many of the same issues have persisted through the years — inequities in education and school funding, poverty, community/police relations, incarceration rates and infant mortality rates, among others.

“I think an important thing is to recognize that a lot of these issues are ingrained in not only Dayton, but ingrained nationally, especially when you look at urban centers,” he said. “These things aren’t really new, but I think in the last two years, things like COVID have really highlighted a lot of these inequities.”

Smith said he’s noticed a more recent shift from the idea of achieving equality to a long-term goal of equity.

“It’s about, ‘We are here,’ and we can’t get to equity because we aren’t even looked at as even an equal yet,” he said.

Equity, or fairness under the law remains a big issue, and Smith said he has observed the renewed focus on community-police relations.

Chaz Amos, 19, founder and director of the I Love West Dayton initiative, believes that issue of community-police relations remains front and center. He said the case of Clifford Owensby, a paraplegic Dayton man who was dragged from his vehicle by police during a traffic stop in September, has exacerbated the tension.

“DPD came out this week to declare that the officers did (not violate department policies), but it’s almost as if they tried to pacify that statement by saying there were some findings of wrongdoing, so we’re still lacking that full transparency of actually seeing what goes into the decision making before they come out with things like that,” Amos said.

Part of the issue with police relations comes from the low number of Black police officers, Amos said, noting DPD employs nearly 400 police officers, fewer than 30 of whom are Black.

“You have white officers who are serving a predominantly Black community, who live in Beavercreek, Xenia, Centerville, and when (they) come here to work, what could possibly motivate or inspire (them) to take care of the people that you’re serving and treat them with respect?” he said.

Amos’ work through the I Love West Dayton initiative has a main focus on neighborhood cleanup and illegal dumping with a mission to “build clean neighborhoods for generations to come.”

“I’m thinking of the kids who are growing up and seeing this; they’re internalizing it,” he said.

A neighborhood devoid of trash dumping, along with things like sidewalk and storm drain paving, and updated parks and playgrounds, are factors that can make all the difference, Amos said.

“Then when you have those kids who are walking home form school everyday who are playing, they take that nice environment in,” he said. “At this point, I’m not focusing on the people who are stuck in their ways and who are dumping trash; I’m trying to reach the generation who is coming up, because if we have a generation who comes up in a clean West Dayton, they may not have the most money, but they can live in decent-looking area.”

Smith said in recent years, he has noticed more youth doing the work to solve community issues, calling that “a key component in moving forward.”

White noted that the Dayton Unit NAACP has multiple programs to allow kids and young adults to become actively involved in the organization.

“We have a program that fosters leadership … and also to prepare them, as they develop into adulthood, to be ready to step in to champion the causes that affect everyone’s civil rights,” she said.

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Smith said new leaders will have to foster relationships, especially in a technology-driven world.

“We have this information age where people are able to come together in different ways, and it’s important to make sure we use that, but don’t forget that talking to people and meeting people is also important,” he said.

Just as crucial, Smith said, is for people to recognize the progress that has been made, and to remember those “wins” while looking to the future.

“Over generations, we’ve seen progresses and we’ve seen losses that then make the next generation feel that no progress was made because we don’t really focus enough on how to maintain our wins, and I think that’s the key moving forward,” he said.

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