Beyond the dream
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on January 17, 2010 1:50 AM
Al King remembers when a drive down Highway 117 brought with it images of the local Ku Klux Klan meeting on a lot just between Goldsboro and Dudley.
"They advertised their meetings in the News-Argus for everyone to see. You saw it all the time," King said. "And when you would go by (the site), they would be standing there with their guns and their uniforms."
He gets visibly angry when he recalls a conversation he had with a local Realtor more than 30 years ago -- a discussion meant to warn him against moving into an all-white neighborhood.
"The guy told me the local leader of the KKK lived right down the road, and the inference was, 'You're not going to be here. You're going back (to Texas to complete the move to Goldsboro),'" King said. "He said, 'Now, I don't think he'll do anything, but you know how they work. He can get some of his guys to harm your family -- your kids, your wife.'"
But even with those memories still fresh in his mind, Goldsboro's first black mayor insists that progress has been made in Wayne County since the onset of the Civil Rights Movement.
The country has, in many ways, changed, he said.
Sylvia Barnes, to some extent, agrees.
She, too, grew up in a segregated world and remembers a day long before she began her tenure as local NAACP president, when a white woman belittled her father when he showed up at a firehouse to vote.
"She just hammered him," Mrs. Barnes said. "And I was just standing there, appalled that people were being treated this way."
But now, more than 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King first gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, both King and Mrs. Barnes say there are still hills to climb -- and attitudes to overcome.
Only these days, they say, it is not the overt racism that holds back progress -- although both say there are still those who cling to the view that there will never be a place for blacks in society.
Today, what keeps the dream from becoming a reality are attitudes and circumstances -- on both sides of the aisle.
For Mrs. Barnes, the difference is not in racism itself, but how blacks react to it.
Many young blacks today, she said, only look to advocate groups like the NAACP when they have a problem, whereas during the Dr. King era, seemingly everybody was involved in the movement.
"Until the younger generation really understands where their forefathers came from, there is going to be a gap, because they are thinking, 'It's not as bad as the NAACP says,'" Mrs. Barnes said. "They say things like, 'Well I don't see what (the NAACP) is doing. People do not see the real purpose of the NAACP until somebody in their family or a friend or a neighbor needs us."
And for King, today's struggle is with broken down ideals of family and community that perpetuate age-old stereotypes.
He referenced the plight of students who attend Goldsboro High School and live in the neighborhoods that surround it as an example of just that.
"They are low-income, most of them, and therein lies the problem. We have tremendous kids with tremendous potential, but if they don't have the right environment, the right teaching and support, they are not going to succeed," he said. "So some people sit back and say, 'They are dumb. They are stupid. They can't learn.' That is wrong. If you listen to some of these young black males who we are told aren't that smart, and they can hear a rap song two times and repeat it verbatim, you're telling me they can't learn?
"They can learn. There is something else causing this. But we're not ready or prepared to handle or deal with it, so we just write them off."
Mrs. Barnes blames their plight on a lack of the kind of motivation men like Dr. King used to provide -- and a lack of the sense of urgency blacks used to possess when fighting for equality.
And the mayor says those who should be motivating today's black youths -- teachers, neighbors and family members -- are failing.
"My teachers were absolutely special. Every student, every individual, they knew what you were capable of doing, and they made sure you performed at that level. They wouldn't let you just get by, they pushed you to your limit. We don't have that now. We have lost that," he said. "We used to have kids who would have gone astray had we not had strong teachers and strong parents. In those days, if an adult saw me doing something wrong ... they were going to tell my mother and I was going to get killed when I got home.
"And if your teacher had to contact your parents to tell them you hadn't done your homework or you had done something wrong, forget about it. Your life was over. You were forced to do what you could to succeed in school because the teacher was powerful. I would have been dead if I said to my teacher half the things these kids used to say to my wife in the classroom."
Mrs. Barnes, and her contemporaries at the NAACP, agree with the mayor on many levels.
"I think that one of the things that we have to look at and want is neighborhoods that are cleaned up. We have to motivate people to get off drugs and stop going into people's homes. You have to motivate people to the point where they say, 'I can be what I want. I don't have to rob somebody. I don't have to go in and take from people who are working,'" Mrs. Barnes said. "Taking those young people and trying to help them understand what their lives could be like, that's doing something."
And that, she said, is the modern day step that must be taken to continue the pursuit of Dr. King's dream.
"It is incumbent upon us to make sure we keep saying to people, 'You can be what you want to be,'" she said.
The mayor agrees.
But in his mind, pointing out, to black youths, that the country has its first black president -- and the city, its first black mayor -- is not enough.
Those elections, he said, were not simply lessons in barriers broken. They should be used to motivate a new generation to look at their neighbors for who they are, not where they came from.
"It wasn't black people who elected Obama. He got a lot of black support, a lot of black support from people who didn't normally vote, but it wasn't black people. It was young people of all races. That's the future. That's the direction we're headed in," he said. "You know, in Vietnam, we didn't think, 'Well what color is the person trying to help me live?' You did not care. All you cared about was whether that person was capable enough to do their job and to have your back. ... And one day, this country is going to look at every person in the same way. Can they help this country succeed? If the answer is yes, race and religion, it won't matter."