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Photos: Keith Beauchamps, Angela Glover Blackwell, and Manuel Pastor
From left, Keith Beauchamp, Angela Glover Blackwell, and Manuel Pastor share the stage at the Civic Auditorium.
Photo: Matt Fitt

March 6, 2006

Response to Katrina a 'wake-up call,' convocation speaker says

By Louise Donahue

The past, present, and future of civil rights came together February 28 at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation.

In a departure from past years, two speakers addressed the crowd and answered questions at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium event. Speaking were Keith Beauchamp, who directed a documentary about the 1955 murder of a 14-year-old for whistling at a white woman, and Angela Glover Blackwell, a community-building activist who founded the advocacy group PolicyLink. Manuel Pastor, UCSC professor of Latin American and Latino studies, served as emcee.

"My generation must never forget those who paved their way to exist in this society," Bauchamp told the crowd. His film, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, was shown at two free screenings before the convocation. Beauchamp noted that Till’s slaying in Mississippi—considered a turning point in the civil rights movement—came before either Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a white bus passenger or King’s rise to prominence. It is now his generation’s turn, Beauchamp said. “No longer should we sit back in silence or let our elders do it."

Reminding the audience of the passing of civil rights icons such as Parks and Coretta Scott King, Beauchamp asked, “Who do we have to pick up that torch?”

Beauchamp and Angela Glover Blackwell agreed that there was no leader of King’s stature today. For Blackwell, the rise of such a leader is no longer possible, because of intense media attention. “We have a lots of celebrities, but not moral leaders. We need to look to ourselves,” said Blackwell, whose PolicyLInk organization encourages equitable development, living- wage efforts, and community strategies to improve health.

Blackwell said Black History Month is often a time when “we take our heroes off the shelf,” and cited several figures—from Sojourner Truth to Martin Luther King—whose words have relevance today.

King’s belief that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” as he wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, “has a lot to do with our brothers and sisters in Louisiana,” Glover said. PolicyLink is consulting with the Louisiana Recovery Authority on housing and other rebuilding issues following Hurricane Katrina.

“America was shocked and it was ashamed” by what Katrina revealed, said Blackwell, and Americans sent billions of dollars to help Katrina’s victims. “But our government hasn’t stepped up.”

Blackwell said the initial public interest in issues of poverty laid bare by the hurricane has faded, but the continuing media interest in the situation offers a ray of hope. “There is still a chance to bring the story back,” she said, thanks to continuing news coverage of the hurricane’s aftermath. “We have Katrinas waiting to happen everywhere.”

A Louisiana native, Beauchamp called Katrina “a wake-up call” for his generation. He said it was particularly painful for him to move from years of focusing on the death of Emmett Till to the death and suffering in his home state. “There are a lot of things that happened there that shouldn’t have happened.” He said an abandoned military base in the state could have been used by hurricane evacuees, but that northern Louisiana residents opposed having black residents relocate there.

“We have never been equal in this country. We would like to feel we have reached that plateau but we haven’t.”

Blackwell said that while legal barriers have fallen since King’s time, many people are still locked out of opportunity. “Where you live has now become the proxy for inequality,” she said, since where people live determines the quality of schools, quality of air, and access to good jobs and transportation.

In addition to the speakers, the convocation included a performance by UCSC’s Rainbow Theater. The 22nd annual convocation was sponsored by UCSC and the City of Santa Cruz, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, KUSP Radio, The Nickelodeon and Del Mar Theaters, and the Santa Cruz Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP.

Related story:
Documentary director, community activist to speak at MLK event
(January 30 Currents)

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