By Shaun Hall of the Grants Pass Daily Courier
The Rev. Ernestein Flemister of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church said America has a ways to go to attain Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of justice and freedom.
She and others spoke to a crowd of about 200 people gathered Monday for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at Bethany Presbyterian Church in Grants Pass. She said there’s work left to do, nearly 57 years after King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington.
“If we truly want to see the United States of America become the dream, we have to make change, and the change starts in our hearts,” said Flemister, one of the few people of color in the room. “I am the same as you, and I am as worthy of love and care as you are.”
Despite King’s hopes, inequality persists, she said. Barriers exist.
“Our dilemma is a dilemma of the heart,” she said. “What we need is a change of heart. A heart to love … all of God’s people.”
She got a standing ovation.
Flemister, marking her second King holiday since coming to Grants Pass in 2018, urged people to stop being uninformed, misinformed and deliberately ignorant. White supremacy is a fallacy, she said. Those people on the border – referring to detained immigrants and their families at the U.S.-Mexico border – are no different from you or me, she said.
“We have no business putting children in cages,” she said. “We are all one people, no matter what part of the globe you are from.”
Flemister pointed to police brutality and pervasive discrimination, saying that Europeans seem to have a “sense of ownership” over Africans.
The audience burst out in applause when she said, “It’s not OK for somebody to be sleeping outside in the freezing cold.” A warming center is expected to open soon for people on the streets in Grants Pass.
Monday’s gathering was the second year in a row for the King Holiday celebration in Grants Pass, after a decade of quiet.
“We would love to see this grow and grow and grow,” said the Rev. Tom Berry, of Bethany Presbyterian.
Berry wore a shirt bearing the colors of the rainbow and the words “Love wins.”
Rabbi Russell McAlmond took the stage, greeted the audience by saying, “Shalom,” or peace, and said God “wanted all of us to be brothers and sisters.”
Jewish people know the harm done by discrimination, McAlmond said. Jews to this day are murdered “only because they are Jews,” he said.
Quoting King, he said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Jeni Foster of the Songbird Trio, one of three groups that performed during the event, told the audience that “peace and justice begins with the work in our own community.” The audience stood for the final song of the night, “Lift Every Voice.”
The Rev. Ryan Scott of Newman United Methodist Church also quoted King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
He said King fought for the value and dignity of others.
“Today, the same fight is before us,” Scott said. “There are forces of evil at work in this nation that are dictating the value of our neighbors. We cannot let this continue.”
Scott spoke about his own part in a fight with the Boy Scouts of America over its discriminatory practices. He is an Eagle Scout and remains a volunteer in the organization, which recently lifted its ban on gay scouts and LGBTQ leaders, and made accommodations for transgender youth, in addition to including girls in all its programs.
“We kept pushing and change happened,” he said.
Scott urged people to listen, learn and act.
“Those of us who enjoy a certain level of privilege have a moral obligation to use our power lift others up,” he said. “The promise of inclusion lives within you.”
Opposing discrimination across the nation, in Oregon
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was much more than one speech about having a dream, says the Rev. Ernestein Flemister of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Grants Pass.
“He made many, many more you never hear about,” Flemister said at Monday’s King Holiday celebration at Bethany Presbyterian Church.
King was born Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta and died at the age of 39 from an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.
For the 11 years after he became the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, until the day he was shot on a balcony at a Memphis motel, the preacher spoke at more than 2,500 events, wrote five books and traveled more than 6 million miles, according to the Nobel Foundation, which awarded King the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
King preached and practiced nonviolence, but was arrested 20 times and was assaulted four times, according to the foundation. In 1963, when 250,000 peaceful demonstrators marched to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech.
Flemister spoke about the nation’s “original sin” of slavery. In Oregon, despite entering the Union as a “free state,” that legacy translated into discrimination.
According to the Oregon Historical Society, blacks in Oregon were barred from participation in the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, which swelled white migration to the state. According to the Oregon Constitution of 1857, blacks were barred from living here, a provision made moot by passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868, after the Civil War, although the law wasn’t taken off the books until 1926.
Blacks were barred from marrying whites in Oregon, a law not taken off the books until the 1950s. As late as the 1920s, Oregon was home to the largest Ku Klux Klan chapter west of the Mississippi.
In Josephine County, the Daily Courier printed a picture of a KKK march through Grants Pass in 1919. However, open KKK activities withered before the 1930s arrived, according to the Josephine County Historical Society.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has had a chapter in Oregon since 1913. King was on the organization’s executive committee starting in 1954.
In Josephine County, the number of blacks rose from 0.1% of the population in 1990 to an estimated 0.6% in 2018 – 524 people out of the county’s 87,393 residents, according to the U.S. Census.
According to the latest crime statistics compiled by Oregon State Police, two hate crimes based on race or ethnicity were reported in Josephine County in 2018.
This article originally appeared on the front page of the January 21, 2020 edition of the Grants Pass Daily Courier and is republished with permission.