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On MLK Day, Minnesota speakers say justice, equality still unanswered

MINNEAPOLIS -- The widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers said young people in America are asking fundamental questions about equality and opportunity -- and the conversation has been challenging.

MINNEAPOLIS -- The widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers said young people in America are asking fundamental questions about equality and opportunity - and the conversation has been challenging.

“They are looking for answers,” said Myrlie Evers-Williams, addressing a crowded breakfast hall Monday at the Minneapolis Convention Center. “They are looking for support. They are looking for direction. Let us not have one in this room, or in the communities from which you come, turn your back on the future of this country.”

Evers-Williams, a former NAACP chairwoman, provided the keynote address at the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Breakfast, which was attended by Gov. Mark Dayton, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Reps. Betty McCollum and Tom Emmer, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.

The breakfast, one of a number of events held around the Twin Cities on Monday to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, was launched in 1991 by the United Negro College Fund and the General Mills Foundation. It now draws major sponsorship from Medtronic and Target and serves as a fundraiser for the college fund.

Invoking the spirit and writings of King, speakers across the metro area urged calm, inclusiveness and more youth mentoring at a time of heightened tensions between protest groups and police or government.

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At the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in downtown St. Paul, keynote speaker Caroline Wanga asked the audience to flip the channel when they see offensive images on television, and to think of themselves as calm leaders in a storm.

“Stopping the storm just lets another storm come,” said Wanga, chief diversity officer for the Target Corporation. “That’s not a really good plan. But if you’re calm in the storm, then you win.”

Wanga, who delivered the state of Minnesota Governor’s Council on the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration address, added later: “I am transitioning from ‘do less harm’ to ‘create positive net impact’ in the time I’ve been given on this Earth.”

Her words resonated with audience member Lauretta Dawolo-Towns of St. Paul, an organizer with “Girls in Action,” which mentors teenagers in the St. Paul and Minneapolis public schools.

“You already have what you need to lead,” said Dawolo-Towns, who arrived with her 5-month-old son, Kenie Towns, in her arms. “Don’t sit idly by and wait for someone else to do the work that, really, you’re called to do … in fighting for equal justice.”

Her older son, Jawad Towns Jr., a third-grader in the St. Paul Public Schools, said he was mostly inspired by the Grammy-award winning vocalists who performed shortly after the governor’s opening remarks.

“I like the Sounds of Blackness,” he said.

At the Central Presbyterian Church on Cedar Street, the Lumina Women’s Ensemble performed traditional spirituals such as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and helped lead the audience in “We Shall Overcome.”

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Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, the director of choral ministries at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, told the crowd that the words of the latter have taken on expanded meaning since his mother’s childhood in the segregated South.

“When we sing today ‘We Shall Overcome,’ I want you to think about the Hmong community, about the Somali, the black community … the LGBT,” he told the audience, explaining later in an interview that many groups have faced discrimination and need to come together to fight inequality. “When we think about it in 2017, the ‘we’ is a lot bigger, and it needs to be a lot bigger.”

In the mid-1950s, Medgar and Myrlie Evers opened and managed the first NAACP Mississippi field office to advocate for voting rights for black residents, among other basic civil rights.

Medgar Evers was shot to death in 1963 in front of his home in Jackson, Miss. Two all-white juries failed to convict white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, but Evers-Williams helped keep the case alive for 30 years and De La Beckwith was ultimately convicted of murder by a multi-racial jury in 1994.

Evers-Williams, an author and former director of consumer affairs with an American oil company, served as chairman of the national board of directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1995 to 1998, helping to stabilize the organization during a rocky period.

“I’m proud, I’m pleased, I’m thankful, and yes, I’m tired,” Evers-Williams said. “I soon will reach my 84th birthday. … I look at America today, and I see how we are being challenged, my friends, by our youth - many of whom are asking us, ‘Is this all there is to it?’ Others who are saying, ‘How can I help?’ ”

Still other young people, she said, are seeking guidance from an older generation who have faced fundamental questions about equality and civil rights before.

“We are in trouble in this country,” she said. “We are challenged today as we have never been challenged before. We see people, you and others throughout this country, saying that we believe in justice and equality for everyone. As long as that spirit stays with us, then we are going to be all right.

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“We need to listen to our youth, who are crying for help, and understanding, and wisdom, and opportunity,” she said. “I think about 1963 … when it was the youth in the South who came to the forefront, and they said we want to be a part of the change in our society. They were the ones who marched. They were the ones who were thrown in jail. … And they sang, ‘I ain’t going to let nobody turn me ’round.’ ”

Despite the hate felt in a segregated Mississippi, activists like Medgar Evers and the young people who joined him focused on progress, not destruction, and she urged today’s young people to do the same.

She recalled the April 2015 news coverage of a Baltimore mother who chased down her rock-throwing son to pull him out of a racially charged riot.

“This is our community,” she said. “We build it. We don’t burn it down.”

King was was born Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta, and rose to prominence as a national advocate for nonviolent protest against racial discrimination, especially in the segregated American South.

King was shot and killed by a sniper on April 4, 1968. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation marking the third Monday in January as a federal holiday in honor of King’s birthday. As of 2000, all states recognized the holiday.

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