Community

Finding opportunities to make a better nation

A photo of Dr. Percy Harris sits on the altar at his Jan. 30. 2017, memorial service at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids. The service celebrated the life of the physician and civic leader who broke racial barriers as the first black doctor at St. Luke’s Hospital and the first black member of the Iowa Board of Regents. His also was the first black family to move into their southeast side neighborhood. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
A photo of Dr. Percy Harris sits on the altar at his Jan. 30. 2017, memorial service at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids. The service celebrated the life of the physician and civic leader who broke racial barriers as the first black doctor at St. Luke’s Hospital and the first black member of the Iowa Board of Regents. His also was the first black family to move into their southeast side neighborhood. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Last Monday at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, congregation and community members alike gathered to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

The event, “60 Years Later: Why Colorblindness Falls Short,” was titled that because it has been 60 years since Dr. Percy Harris opened his medical practice in Cedar Rapids, explained his daughter, Anne Carter.

Harris, who died in 2017, was the first black physician to practice in Cedar Rapids and was a well-known community leader. His family’s connection to St. Paul’s runs deep. When they arrived in Cedar Rapids in the 1950s, racist policies restricted where they could live. In 1961, Cedar Rapids businessman Robert Armstrong asked St. Paul’s to sell one of its lots on Bever Avenue SE to the Harris family. The question divided the congregation — in a vote, 460 of the 751 church members approved the sale.

The congregants of that time had to make a choice. They voted to overcome prejudice and welcome new neighbors, in the face of hostility from many of their fellow church members.

That was 60 years ago, but we should not fool ourselves into thinking we don’t have to keep making that choice.

The MLK Day service included audio from the last speech Martin Luther King Jr. gave, the night before he was shot and killed.

In it, King recounts the Biblical story of the good Samaritan, a man who stopped to help a stranger he saw suffering in the road. Two others, a priest and a Levite, already had passed him by and hurried on without stopping.

King said:

“And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

It made me think of a story The Gazette ran Jan. 19, about a decision before the Cedar Rapids City Council 20 years ago. In 1999, council members were called to vote on whether to expand the municipal code to add sexual orientation to the civil rights ordinance, which would discourage discrimination based on sexual orientation in workplaces, housing, education, credit and public accommodation.

The debate was heated, and City Council members who voted in favor of the expansion — it passed after a 3-2 vote — ultimately were in turn voted out of office.

“It was toxic,” Dale Todd told reporter B.A. Morelli. “There were death threats. There was a concern about security. We had to implement safeguards at City Hall. ... It was scary.”

He then was the city’s Parks Commissioner, but was ousted in 2001. He was elected to the council last year.

The question of whether to act out of fear or compassion is something we as a society have been asked countless times in the past and surely will continue to be asked in the future.

And we’re being asked now. When we, as a nation, are asked to extend our hand in help to others, do we turn away from their suffering in fear and worry? Or do we ask what will happen to them if we do not help, despite those fears?

As King continued in his speech:

“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”

• Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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