This past Friday night my wife and I were invited to the Minnesota Teen Challenge Banquet at the Minneapolis HIlton. We didn’t know what to expect and were really unaware of what Teen Challenge was all about. We were so impressed. MN Teen Challenge is one of the largest residential drug and alcohol treatment programs in the State of Minnesota. And for about 3 hours, the 2000 or more persons in attendance heard powerful, heart wrenching testimony from more than a dozen young men and women who have struggled with addiction for most of their lives. Consider one example:
“Hi. I’m Sheri. I used drugs for more than 20 years. I manufactured drugs, sold drugs, and committed crimes to make my living. My ex-husband was physically violent towards me, and we were in constant punching matches, which I would always lose. My eyes were often black, my nose was broken twice, and the only way he found he could keep me from going to work was to break my fingers. Eventually, he broke all of them. I lost countless jobs, and found a way to make money by selling drugs. One night during his violence, I stabbed him with a pair of scissors and fled for my life. But, even after leaving him, I found that the drugs still controlled my life. My brother kept praying for me to come to Teen Challenge, and finally I did. I am a life that has been changed, and I am experiencing God’s unconditional love.” Sheri graduated in the spring of 2003 and is now working at Illinois Teen Challenge.
The name Teen Challenge is is somewhat of a misnomer. Most of the 450 persons enrolled in this faith based program ranged in ages from 14 to 40. One of the highlights of the evening was seeing all 450 on stage singing several inspirational songs throughout the program. Governor Pawlenty delivered the keynote address, but the real stars of the evening were the young men and women who have found a way to break free from the endless cycle of addiction.
The Senate has been in a bit of a holding pattern these past few weeks. After busting out of the chute with a very busy start the session, we have been patiently waiting for the House to finish up some important tax and finance bills. Only a few weeks remain to work out a compromise with the Governor and the House to find a solution to the $935 million deficit. The conference committees are also working on a variety of bills, including health care reform, hoping to find a compromise between House and Senate versions and something the Governor will sign. I do not currently serve on a conference committee which typically go to Senior members, committee chairs, or those members who have a controversial bill in play.
In the meantime I have had a little extra time to get out and about in the district. I traveled to Gaylord last week for Sibley County’s annual meeting. There were over 70 persons in attendance, on a Friday night, representing most of the townships in the county. I also spent part of another morning visiting with the LeSuer County commissioners in LeCenter. They were appreciative of the passing of the transportation bill earlier in the session, but still have concerns about property taxes and overall revenue. Tonight I just returned from an informational meeting in New Prague regarding their proposed Waste Water Treatment facility due to go online in 2010.
I always enjoy visiting with local officials and I am always impressed with the wide variety of problems and concerns they deal with on a regular basis. It also provides a chance for me to learn from those who are most knowledgeable about those issues.
Freedom can’t wait…a message Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered to the local clergy in his letter from a Birmingham Jail. I just returned from Atlanta, Georgia and Birmingham, Alabama this past weekend on a civil rights field trip with 31 other teachers from Northfield, Minnesota. Birmingham could be considered a civil rights museum with some important historic artifacts: the 16th Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, the Civil Rights Institute, Sloss Furnaces, and the buildings and infrastructure that provided background for a city ignited in 1963. The events of Birmingham that year paved the way for a long slow process of integration in a segregated south.
Freedom didn’t wait for the thousands of black workers who worked at the Sloss Furnaces, an iron works factory which provided the economic stimulus for a young Birmingham in the late 19th century. Nearby iron ore, railroad lines, and cheap labor, made up of the predominantly black population, defined the color line of status and economics for Birmingham for over 100 years.
Freedom can’t wait. Carolyn McKinstry still shares her lessons of freedom to anyone who will listen. Only weeks from participating in the Children’s march, Carolyn was in the 16th Baptist Church the day that church was bombed. Just before the explosion, Carolyn answered the phone in the church office hearing the words, “three minutes” before a bomb ripped through the basement of the church killing four young girls, classmates of Carolyn. Ms. McKinstry, speaking before our group in the sanctuary, provided a powerful testimony to the spirit and determination of the thousands of blacks who took on the city of Birmingham and its Jim Crow laws. Police dogs, fire hoses, beatings, jail, or a bomb would not deter people like Carolyn, who continues to inspire and teach the lessons of freedom.
Birmingham owns up to its past. The Civil Rights Institute, across the street from the church, is an excellent tribute to the movement. It provides dramatic context to the events and people that focused worldwide attention on “Bombingham” in the spring of 1963.
Freedom can’t wait, a message delivered by Lonnie King on the campus outside Spellman, Morehouse, and Clark Colleges in Atlanta. Lonnie King retold his story of organizing nearly 4000 college students for a march on the State Capitol in Atlanta, nearly 45 years ago. His story echoed many stories we heard over the weekend. Convincing blacks that “freedom can’t wait” was a constant battle. Even Lonnie’s mother refused to identify the young man on TV as her own son, for fear of being fired by her white employer.
Freedom was not for those who waited in the “colored only” line at the beautiful Fox Theater in downtown Atlanta. A few blocks away, freedom did not wait for the black neighborhood on Auburn Street. The roots of change provided strong inspiration to a young Martin Luther King, Jr. who was born on Auburn Street, three blocks from Daddy King’s Ebeneezer Baptist Church. Preachers and successful black businessmen in the area provided a supportive environment for the young King. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Visitors center across the street from Martin and Coretta’s gravesite allowed us time for additional reflection on the short life of a true American hero.
Are we done waiting? Can the lessons of Birmingham, Atlanta, and the civil rights movement be carried forward? Yes…as long as there is hate in this country and around the world. Yes…as long as there is a need for status, there will be attempts to keep others down. Yes…as long as there is discrimination, racism, and social injustice, there is more to do. Yesterday’s color line gives way to issues surrounding immigration, sexual preference, gender, religious intolerance, and racial profiling. The face of hate may not be as vivid as a police dog attacking a young black student in Kelly Ingram Park. The face of hate may not look like Birmingham Police Commissioner Bull Connor, Georgia Governor George Wallace, or the Ku Klux Klan. The face of hate may be harder to see, which is why we all need to work harder to recognize and eliminate it….in ourselves and in others. As educators or policy makers, we have a wonderful opportunity to teach the lessons of freedom. Lonnie King told the story of the time he tried to persuade a reluctant MLK to march with him in Atlanta. “You can’t lead from the back,” he told him. Martin agreed. Martin marched and ended up in jail once again, like so many others before . Freedom can’t wait. Freedom then. Freedom now.
Forty five years ago last week, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his non-violence movement found Birmingham, Alabama. Police Commissioner Bull Connor and the white establishment resisted the freedom marchers’ attempts to integrate with police dogs, fire hoses, beatings, and jail time. Martin Luther King wrote his famous “letter from Birmingham jail” in the margins of a newspaper smuggled into his solitary cell. Forty years ago last week, the Rev. King was assassinated in Memphis.
This weekend I will visit Atlanta and Birmingham on a civil rights field trip. This has been a trip that I have looked forward to for many years. I became especially interested in this part of American History within the last 15 years or so, as I have learned more and more about the movement through books I have read and the lessons I have taught in my Civics classes over the years. It is still unbelievable to me that this social injustice, this assault on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, this level of violence and hatred…happened in my life time. Growing up in Iowa in the 1960’s did not did not expose me to these shortcomings, a decade in which America lost its innocence as it came to grips with its past.
The Field trip is being sponsored through the American History Grant which has benefited K-12 educators in the Northfield School district and beyond for the past 3 years. There will be about 30 of us visiting several sites in the “deep south,” the birthplace of King and the birthplace of a movement. I look forward to sharing my experience.