DES MOINES — Iowans used Monday’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in Des Moines to press for racial unity in the face of events, actions and words nationally that drive division.
Dozens of Iowans who braved cold temperatures to attend the 29th annual King celebration at the Des Moines Botanical Garden heard a mix of positive and challenging messages as the state struggles to deal with racial inequities in employment and incarceration rates and a negative image as a place that tolerates “a quieter racism.”
“There are strong positives that we’ve seen,” said Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP organization and a small-business owner honored with an MLK achievement award.
“I know that from the top, from the presidency down, we’re seeing some really disheartening, concerning statements and things that are divisive. We want to make sure that we’re pushing for unity,” Andrews said in an interview.
“Some of the comments that we’re hearing let us know that we have a lot more work to do,” she added. “Right now we’re standing on the shoulders of people like Dr. King and many others, but we also have to do that groundwork so that our children can stand on our shoulders on into generations.
“This is not a progressive format, this is not a conservative format, this is about a humanitarian format,” she later told the gathering. “This is about stepping up and making America great. That’s what this is about.”
Gov. Kim Reynolds read a proclamation declaring a week to honor King’s memory and dream of racial equality before telling the attendees that efforts to “unleash opportunities” for Iowans will help allay fears and foster the equality and justice King yearned for.
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However, after the event, Reynolds told reporters that recent comments by President Donald Trump — which he later denied — are “not helpful” in that process.
“Not unlike the era in which Dr. King lived, our society is experiencing a period of dramatic change and with change often comes uncertainty, fear and frustration,” the governor said in her remarks.
Clair Rudison, a member of the Iowa Department of Human Rights board of directors, praised the governor’s efforts to improve Iowans’ employment skills but said an incentive program is needed to aid and encourage businesses to help people who have “tainted or criminal backgrounds” lead productive lives.
Rudison recalled the fear in people’s hearts when King was assassinated in 1968 and he wondered if King had lived and been 89 years old now if “he might think that his work was in vain.”
“This nation is focused on fear. They want to scare the hell out of everybody. But Dr. King stood up in the face of fear and laid down his life for a cause,” he said. “We’re still striving (for that cause), he added. “Let us press forward toward that mark.”
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