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Keeping Dr. King’s dream alive

Keeping Dr. King’s dream alive

Orange County leaders champion his message of faith and equality.

I learned recently that just 19 days before his assassination in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Orange County to speak against the war in Vietnam and in support of the Poor People’s Campaign, which he planned to take to Washington, D.C., the following month. It was one of his final public appearances.

His directive was simple: Make an effort to understand and comprehend, and replace violence with compassion and love. Today, his message is still shaping the work of those in our community who continue to be inspired by his example. 

Sunday after Sunday, you can hear the pastors of Christ Our Redeemer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Irvine preach Dr. King’s good news of freedom, equality and inclusion. It’s a message that rings as true today as it did in the 1950s when the AME Church first helped Baptist minister Dr. King address the spiritual, intellectual, physical and emotional needs of all people. 

“Dr. King spoke truth to power, challenging unjust public policies that denied Americans the right to vote, own homes, attend any public school and use public facilities,” said Rev. Mark E. Whitlock Jr., who has served as pastor of Christ Our Redeemer since August 1998. “He spoke without fear of death, personal destruction or public ridicule. Similarly, AME Church members marched to make America a better place, transported civil rights workers on AME-owned church buses and registered people of color to vote by the hundreds of thousands.”

Present-day Orange County is a long way from the Montgomery, Ala., of 1955, but too many similarities persist. Ours is a community of contrast, still divided in many ways by characteristics like race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. 

“Orange County is one of the most racially diverse communities in the United States,” said Rev. Hermia Shegog-Whitlock, who works as a clergy team with her husband to help lead Christ Our Redeemer Church, now the largest AME congregation in Orange County with more than 2,000 multiracial members. “Yet, many continue to refer to being here as living ‘behind the Orange Curtain,’ a term meant to describe this as a place of privilege for wealthy white people only. Dr. King’s legacy challenges residents to dispel this myth and demonstrate the harmony of all God’s creation by living, working and worshiping together in Orange County.”

She points out startling statistics confirming that some local attitudes toward social equality still reflect the biases that Dr. King confronted. For more than 20 years, OC Human Relations has been collecting, tracking, reporting, and responding to hate crimes ¬— criminal acts committed against victims because of their disability, gender, nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or other characteristics — in Orange County. In 2012, 61 hate crimes were reported in Orange County, with the African American and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender) communities tied as the most-frequent targets. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. 

“As our community and the world we live in changes, the more time, energy and resources we invest in developing strategies to reduce intolerance, build understanding among diverse people, and reinforce participation in the decision-making process of our institutions and government, the more likely we will be to survive the challenges that are inevitable,” said Rusty Kennedy, executive director of OC Human Relations. 

He points out that our American history is fraught with examples of social injustice, from the Trail of Tears to the scapegoating of Muslim-Americans after 9/11

“We can and should do better, but we must invest in the human relations infrastructure before the next crisis,” Kennedy said.

And that message of collaboration is one Whitlock encourages us all to embrace as we celebrate King on Jan. 20. 

“As Heaven is fully integrated, let us integrate private places in Orange County,” Whitlock said. “Let us break down religious, racial and homophobic barriers blocking people from communicating openly and honestly. Let us begin to love one another, our neighbors, as we love ourselves.”

You can help, too. To get involved with Orange County nonprofits championing social justice issues, visit Connect OC Nonprofit Central at connectoc.org.

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Shelley Hoss is president of the Orange County Community Foundation. She can be reached at shoss@oc-cf.org.

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