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Longmont Marks MLK Day, Speakers, Attendees Encourage Continued Advocacy

January 22, 2019
Karen Phillips, left, Anne Kear, and Scott Mosley sing "We Shall Overcome" at the conclusion of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration Monday at Silver Creek High School. "We are assembled here today in unity," said Rev. James Ray.

A Tennessee community leader and preacher who participated in the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike with her family and whose father served on Martin Luther King Jr.’s planning committee spoke in Longmont Monday to mark the holiday.

Dozens of community members filled an auditorium for the annual event at Silver Creek High School in Longmont as Almella Starks-Umoja told them about the conditions that led to the strike and the organization necessary to carry it out and advocate for change. The strike began in early 1968 in response the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed while working, and to advocate for better working conditions and pay for the city’s sanitation workers, as well as broader community reform.

“We are a dying breed,” she said of the era’s leaders. She described her father, Henry Logan Starks, among others, as foot soldiers in the pursuit of civil rights and social justice. ”... They have left us. Those of us who still know the story are obligated to share it.”

Starks-Umoja described the conditions that led to the 1968 Memphis strike: White drivers could get out of the city’s sanitation trucks and seek shelter in inclement weather, but black workers could not do the same, she said. To stay as dry as possible, they would take cover in the backs of the trucks, which were not well maintained; Cole and Walker were crushed in a truck malfunction. Black sanitation workers faced poor working conditions and were paid little for long hours, she said.

King said all labor has dignity, she said, and strikers carried signs during demonstrations that read, “I Am A Man,” to counter the perception that they deserved less dignity for their work in sanitation. They endured opposition, police brutality and violence as they organized marches, boycotts and other actions.

Their efforts required community organization and action, she said, including through the group Community on the Move for Equality, and they had to extend beyond one group of people to be effective. King came to Memphis to join in the efforts, and he was assassinated there in April.

Starks-Umoja drew parallels between the stories she shared and current events, including the death of Michael Brown, a black teenager who was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement. Young people today are organizing organically and have energy for continued action, she said.

“We can’t use boxes,” she said. “We have to destroy the boxes. Once we get rid of the boxes and people are people, then we will indeed accomplish the actions that Dr. King dreamed about.”

Johnny Terrell, St. Vrain Valley School District’s executive director of student services, in addressing the crowd said he was “a manifestation of Dr. King’s dream.” In his role he helps coordinate services for students designed to remove barriers that impede student success.

He read an excerpt of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He also lauded Starks-Umoja’s speech and the tactics she described, which he said are still necessary today to address ongoing inequity, including in education and the criminal justice system.

“There is hope in this room and hope in this community, if we employ these tactics,” he said. “Continuing to tell the story is a tactic, and it is a start. ... Advocacy for under-represented populations must continue without fail.”

During the event, the Colorado Heritage Community Choir led the audience in song; Bailes de mi Tierra, a dance group of the Longmont Senior Center, performed a tribute of Mexican folk dances; and various community leaders spoke, including representatives of Longmont’s Multicultural Action Committee and Mayor Brian Bagley.

Longmont resident Erin Dodge attended the event with her daughters, Kayla, 9, and Harper, 5. She brought her daughters because their family talks about racism and recognizing it in themselves, she said, and the event provided an opportunity to celebrate King and connect with their conversations at home.

“It was nice to see the community come together, and that people made this a priority in their day,” Dodge said. “It was nice to see people make space to recognize the service that was put in and come here and be present.”

Cassa Niedringhaus: 303-473-1106, cniedringhaus@dailycamera.com

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