State Sen. Art Haywood held up a blank check as he referenced the promissory note Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” Haywood told the crowd Monday at St. James A.M.E. Zion Church in Allentown, as he read from King’s famous address. “This note was a promise that all men — yes, Black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Haywood, who represents parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery counties, gave the keynote speech at the Allentown NAACP branch’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day event, which was attended by about 100 people, including a smattering of local and state officials. This was the first time the annual holiday event has been celebrated in person since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note,” Haywood continued, eliciting humming agreement from the crowd, which prompted him to remind everyone he was still only reciting King’s speech, and not yet sharing his own thoughts.
This gave rise to knowing laughter as people in the audience realized King’s 1963 message from the March on Washington still holds true for many communities of color today.
Haywood went on to talk about the violence civil rights activists faced and the reality of segregation in America before highlighting the modern-day challenges Black students face in higher education. (The Allentown NAACP said education will be a main focus for the organization in 2023.)
Haywood said African American college students are trapped in a metaphorical box, closed in by four challenges: consistent peer harassment being protected as “free speech,” the failure of school administrators to enforce anti-discrimination laws, low academic expectations from teaching staff, and the requirement that they be endlessly resilient despite it all.
The state senator went on to acknowledge other societal challenges Black Americans still face, including police brutality and housing discrimination.
“I do have to say there are some differences between 1963 and 2023,” he said, segueing into a list of the positive changes he’s seen.
Education access and graduation rates for Black students have increased, he said, and poverty has been reduced. Statues of Confederate Civil War soldiers are coming down.
There are also more visible Black leaders, including Vice President Kamala Harris and Austin Davis, who is set to be sworn in as Pennsylvania’s first Black lieutenant governor Tuesday.
With all this forward movement, Haywood asked, “Is that check ready to be cashed?”
Instead of relying on the “bank of justice” as King said, Haywood believes Americans may have to pool their funds to make good on what’s owed Black people in this country.
It will be modern-day freedom fighters, like those in the local NAACP, who bring the country closer to justice, he said.
Branch Vice President Lisa Conover said the Allentown NAACP has accomplished a lot in the last year, including registering voters, working with Whitehall-Coplay and Parkland school districts to implement diverse programming, and urging the police to get involved when a local Black farmer was facing harassment from a white neighbor.
Conover, who also sits on the Allentown School Board, said the organization continues to “protect the firing rights” of former Superintendent John Stanford, the district’s second Black leader, who left the job in October. Stanford served just under a year of his five-year term, and…
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