MARYSVILLE – When a young girl talked about feeling afraid and defeated, event host JJ Frank immediately encouraged her.
“We want to give you the tools to work against racism,” he said at the “Selma” Martin Luther King Jr. event Monday at the Opera House. “You have people to go to to feel safe.”
Speaking to the overall group of about 40, Frank said, “We need to rally around our young people to give them a voice.”
YMCA executive director Frank said the city’s parks department asked him to be involved in the program to raise awareness about Dr. King’s legacy of fighting racism through open, honest conversations. Frank said that some people may think racism is gone because we recently had a black president for eight years in Barack Obama. But it’s not.
“We need to come together to eliminate racism in our community,” said Frank, whose name is synonymous with the Snohomish County YMCA’s Minority Achievers Program. He added the country’s come a long way, and that success should be celebrated, but there is still a long way to go.
Two other young people talked about racism at the event.
Jaden Smith, who attends Marysville Getchell High School, said he has been called the “n” word. He added people say extreme things on social media without a care in the world.
“If you want to change the world it starts with changing the kids,” he said, adding he doesn’t like to go out alone.
Frank’s daughter, Gianna, said she also has been called the “n” word, and that eventually led to the Marysville School District sending a letter home to all parents that said it has no tolerance for discrimination. She also said not much is taught about Black History Month or MLK and when his “I Have a Dream” speech was played in class many kids were on their cell phones not paying attention.
Ignorance and fear are behind racism, and Frank said another community meeting needs to take place in February to educate and continue the discussion.
Frank, 47, said growing up in Everett he experienced racism, so he knows it takes time.
“We’re not going to solve the problem today,” he said at the start of Monday’s program. “But it’s a conversation starter.”
He said that whites have helped blacks along the way, mentioning the Underground Railroad, the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
“There had to be whites collaborating” with us, he said. And that needs to continue. “It takes like-minded citizens to say, ‘We’re better than that,’ to eliminate that kind of behavior.”
He said after the movie the group would talk about next steps. “It would be a disservice to his legacy to watch the movie and walk away,” Frank said.
The group then watched the movie “Selma,” set in Alabama 54 years ago. It is about MLK’s efforts to help blacks in the South, where systems were in place to make it almost impossible for them to vote. Black marchers in a nonviolent protest were beaten by state troopers. About 70 million people nationwide saw the brutality on TV news. Many whites came to Selma in support. Eventually, marchers were allowed to go to Montgomery, and law was changed.
After the movie, Ray Miller of Marysville said in 1964 he was involved in an effort to help women pass the literacy test so they could vote. He said he wanted to go to Selma, but he couldn’t come up with the bus fare.
In 1968 he was a senior in high school when MLK was assassinated at the age of 39. He said he was home watching Art Linkletter on TV at the time.
Miller said he joined the NAACP at age 16 and is 69 now. He said along with reading and writing, “voting must be powerful,” because so many didn’t want blacks to be able to do it. But he knew skin color didn’t matter. “We’re all one people. We need to stand together.”
Later he said that the writers of the U.S. Constitution would be happy today with the progress that’s been made in 250 years. “We’re still trying for a more-perfect union,” he said.
His wife, Jennifer, added that she’s been told the Northwest is the most racist part of the country. Down South you can tell who is racist, she said, but here you can’t because it’s all done behind your back.
Ed Glazer said some people today are still being denied the right to vote. He said the civil rights work done by MLK and Cesar Chavez cannot be forgotten. It’s not right to “marginalize people who are different.”
His wife, Cathy, wondered if today anyone would be willing to “put their life on the line” to vote. “Do we do enough for equality?” she asked.
Jason Smith said too many people dismiss racism as “ancient history,” but it’s not. He mentioned the Fair Housing Act was just passed in the 1980s. He later added that he advises his son to be careful when dating and dealing with police.
Other instances of discrimination mentioned included the local Sikhs, the M-P shooting that divided the community, and Latinos afraid they are going to be deported.
After he had time to digest all of the information, Frank said Tuesday that this is a “great opportunity to engage the city of Marysville and the Tulalip Tribes to start a conversation about how to eliminate racism in our community.”
He said it’s a hard conversation, and it can make us feel uncomfortable, but it must take place in a safe environment. “We have to remember where we’ve come from. We can’t revert back to that,” he said.
Frank said the community needs to be intentional, deliberate and tactical in taking on the sensitive issue, just like MLK was. He said there’s no better place to start than with young people who are feeling vulnerable.
“We need to empower them with the tools to deal with racism,” he said. “How can we not start there?”