NORMAL — Long after the historic civil rights marches and the death of Martin Luther King Jr., racism and hatred of minorities still tear at the fabric of America, said Saturday’s speaker for the 34th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Awards Luncheon.

Lecia Brooks, director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, provided food for thought for more than 600 guests at the luncheon held at the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in Normal.

The election of the nation’s first black president is a moment “so historic we can’t afford to squander it,” said Brooks.

But at the same time, Barack Obama’s presidency has been accompanied by “an ugly backlash,” said Brooks, marked by a sharp increase in the number of hate groups.  Hispanics, Latinos and gays are among those most frequently targeted by such groups, she said.

Fueling the discrimination against some groups is the strong anti-immigrant sentiment disseminated by some media outlets, according to Brooks. The SPLC took on former CNN anchor Lou Dobbs last year for his daily segments on immigrant issues.

Members of the new hate groups look far different from their counterparts who terrorized the country in white, hooded robes, said Brooks. Incidents of immigrants being beaten and killed by young men from middle-class families who learn hate speech from visiting Web sites are increasing, she said.

Brooks views the obligation to speak up against injustice as a duty and an obligation. Silence, she said, is a danger and a betrayal to those who worked for equality during the civil rights movement.

“It’s a betrayal of their lives and sacrifice and their hopes and dreams for us to remain silent about injustice,” said Brooks.

As part of her work with the SPLC, Brooks also serves as interim director of the Teaching Tolerance program. In an interview with The Pantagraph on Saturday, Brooks said children live more integrated lives than adults who lived through the challenges of the civil rights movement. But subtle forms of discrimination, often found in institutions, still threaten to strangle the opportunities available to minorities, she said. 

The center’s Mix It Up lunch program is one way students learn to expand their comfort zone by something as simple as moving to a different lunch table near students they may not know.

“Mix It Up is a simple call to action. A lot of times the kids want to get away from their self-segregation but we don’t always make it possible,” said Brooks.

The annual luncheon also honored four local residents recognized by the Bloomington and Normal Human Relations Commissions for furthering King’s dream. Donald Crayton received Normal’s Human Relations Award and Willie Brown won Bloomington’s Human Relations Award. Recipients of the “I Have a Dream” Youth awards were Tiarra Farris of Normal and Melissa Summers of Bloomington.

King winners

Following are the four Twin City residents who were honored by the Bloomington and Normal human relations commissions at the 34th annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. awards luncheon Saturday at the Marriot Hotel and Conference Center in Normal.

Donald Crayton, recipient of Normal’s Human Relations Award. He is a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. and has volunteered with the Boys & Girls Club of Bloomington-Normal.

Willie Brown, recipient of the Bloomington Human Relations Award, and retired vice president of State Farm Insurance Cos. He has served on the United Way of McLean County board of directors and has been active with the Achievement Gap Task Force, an effort to improve academic performance in local schools.

Tiara Farris of Normal and Melissa Summers of Bloomington, both named “I Have a Dream” Youth Award recipients. Farris is a senior at Normal Community West High School and has donated more than 185 volunteer hours to the Boys & Girls Club. Summers, a senior at Normal Community High School, has volunteered at The Baby Fold, Project Oz, The Salvation Army, Jesus House and Home Sweet Home Ministries. She spent time this past summer building a church and working in an orphanage in the Dominican Republic.


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