Fifty years after Dr. King’s speech, message reflected in changes here

On Aug. 28, 1963, 16-year-old Kerry Price Sr. was in Dallas when Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his memorable “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C..

King’s message was so powerful that it grasped Price’s heart, as it did the moral consciousness of countless others. Price — now the 66-year-old pastor of Pine Bluff’s Breath of Life Church — felt a new definition, a new determination that has remained steadfast despite the passage of almost more time than the young Price could imagine at that moment.

“It’s hard to believe that 50 years have gone by,” Price said Wednesday, adding that he’s now lived long enough to be comfortable in sharing seasoned wisdom with children, teenagers and young adults. “I tell them that time flies by fast, and what they need to do, they need to get it done.”

Price’s memories of past civil rights struggles and victories are shared by James Bell of White Hall and Rev. Jesse Turner of Pine Bluff, who are 83 and 67, respectively. The three agree that despite many positive gains, King’s dream of social and racial equality is as yet unfulfilled.

“We still have a long way to go,” said Bell, a retired education and instructional media professor at the University of Arkansas’ Fayetteville and Pine Bluff campuses. Bell believes the biggest threat to “the many” civil rights gains of the past half-century is “those who call themselves conservatives but are actually nuts trying to turn back the clock.”

“I’m a conservative person myself, but not that kind of a conservative,” he said. “The conservatives I’m talking about want to deny others of their opportunities.”

Turner — pastor of Elm Grove Baptist Church — believes that while African-Americans have realized some remarkable changes, they haven’t made the kind of advancements for which he figures King hoped. Turner estimates that too many blacks “have become dependent on racial quotas or looking for a crutch” instead of educating themselves and working to reach their full potential with dedication and their own capabilities.

“Some civil rights issues have caused us to hold ourselves back,” Turner said. “We depend too much on civil rights. Civil rights won’t take African-Americans where we need to be.”

Price said one need not look beyond the skin color of the current occupant of the White House for proof of the great improvement in race relations. Recalling the not-so-distant past in which segregated drinking fountains existed at several Pine Bluff businesses, Price — a former Pine Bluff police officer — said he’s pleased that black youngsters of today may actually see for themselves that they can grow up to be “whatever they work toward,” including president of the United States.

Price said he was invited to join in the non-violent civil rights movement of the King era here, but declined.

“My rule is ‘Don’t pick on somebody, but don’t come home crying,’” he said. “I appreciated Dr. King and the movement, but I didn’t fit in.”

Price said he couldn’t accept being spat upon or “thrown through a window” by those opposing peaceful civil rights marches or demonstrations. But Price was aware that he was living in a historic period, as was his parents’ generation.

“Our parents knew that our generation wasn’t going to just be quiet about (denial of civil rights),” he said. “They knew we were going to do something about it.”

Price said he’s pleased that “churches, schools, businesses and housing” that were once segregated are now open to everyone.

Turner and Bell are pleased by blacks’ political gains.

“Locally, we have moved ahead as it relates to the political process,” Turner said, pointing specifically to African-American presence on the long all-white Pine Bluff City Council and Pine Bluff School Board. He thinks a more integrated court system has helped in advancing African-Americans here, but he’s not totally content.

“We still don’t have a level playing field in all areas,” Turner said, “but we’ve made great strides.”

Bell — currently tending to his 102-year-old mother, Cassie Bell of White Hall, at Jefferson Regional Medical Center as she recovers from a stroke — expressed gratitude for increases in the numbers of blacks among local, state and federal representatives, senators and judges, “especially within the Southern states.”

Bell, who grew up in Helena, is proud not only that he was a Boston University classmate of Texas’ late Barbara Jordan, the South’s first black congresswoman, but also of his own achievements in being appointed to several White Hall and state political positions.

What can be done to help make King’s dream a reality in the future?

“We need to be alert, aware and work together,” said Bell.

“Education is the key that unlocks the door to success,” Turner said. “Uneducated people wind up in the penitentiary. Education opens doors to independence. We can’t hold ourselves back by not accepting our responsibility.”

Price reflected on King’s quest for all people to “join together in peace.”

“I believe in loving people,” Price said. “We have to move on from the past. We have to forgive. Hating someone else only holds you back.”