Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spent his life tirelessly making sure that everyone had the same opportunities and treatment, no matter what their race. On Thursday, Jan. 12, Port Authority, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Kingsley Association and the New Pittsburgh Courier, will honor two individuals who possess a King like spirit at the annual “Spirit of King” Award ceremony held at the Kingsley Association.
This year’s honorees, the late Edna McKenzie and Monsignor Charles Owen Rice, are two individuals, who like King, devoted their lives to making life better not only for the people of their day, but for generations to come.
|MONSIGNOR CHARLES OWEN RICE
The “Spirit of King,” beginning in 1989, is a posthumous award presented to individuals from Pittsburgh who best personify the spirit of King and who have impacted the region in the areas of civil rights, leadership, culture and education.
Eric Wells, director of employee relations at Port Authority and member of the committee, said that both of this year’s honorees were deserving of the honor and were selected based on their services given to the Pittsburgh community in an effort to make it a better place.
Each recipient’s name will be placed on a plaque, along with the names of the other 36 recipients.
Edna McKenzie, who passed away June 2005 at the age of 81, was an activist, writer, professor and historian. She had a love of knowledge and thrived to be the very best. With a personality that has been described as tenacious, McKenzie used that same drive to not only find the story and report on it, but also to change the injustices that she reported on. She believed that there was no place for inequality and that everyone was entitled to be treated fairly.
“I consider her one of the strongest advocates of equality in Pittsburgh, that I have ever encountered,” said Ralph Proctor, professor of ethnic and diversity studies at the Community College of Allegheny County. “She was a powerful advocate for African-American people and she was fearless and very articulate.”
In the 1940s, McKenzie began her career at the Pittsburgh Courier as a writer for the society section, but later advanced to the city section, reporting on important issues such as the Double V campaign, which called for victory against U.S. racism and the axel powers aboard. One of her most popular series of articles described when she, along with legendary photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris, would go to various establishments and report on their practices of racial discrimination. “Teenie would take the photos and Edna would lay into them,” said Proctor.
Proctor recalled one of the many times when McKenzie displayed her enthusiasm for equality. There had been a historical Pittsburgh based organization that had been trying to get more African-American involvement and wanted the help of he and McKenzie, but had no African-American employees. “We said we wouldn’t get involved until they hired Blacks and they did.” But while at the organization’s conference, they found out that the only African-American employee that was hired was considered to be an “errand boy,” and being the person McKenzie was, she would not stand for that and she confronted the director. “If it had anything to do with racism or sexism, she (McKenzie) was a terror.”
After leaving the Courier in the ‘50s, McKenzie went onto further her education at the University of Pittsburgh. Proctor was one of her professors during the pursuit of her doctorate degree. She then later went on to teach and become the chair of the Black, Minority and Ethnic Studies department at CCAC, a department in which she was instrumental in establishing.
“She always had a smile. And I was always proud of her—she went to school and got her PhD relatively late in life—that was a bold move,” said long-time friend Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project and a fellow church member of McKenzie, who attended Trinity AME Church in the Hill District, for a great part of her life. “She was influential in the creation of the ethnic studies program at CCAC, which now impacts the psyche of the students who go through the program. They not only see the contributions of African-American, but it provides them with positive images in history and it provides them with positive self images, too.”
McKenzie served on numerous boards and committees, but it was her enthusiasm for knowledge, equality and the betterment of life for all, not only in the present but for the future, that exhibits a spirit like that of King.
With an undying, but often times controversial, commitment to the Catholic Church and a passion for social and racial justice, Msgr. Rice used his influence in the church and the community to battle injustices, not only racially and socially, but also when it came to labor practices. Known as Pittsburgh’s “Labor Priest,” Msgr. Rice, who passed November 2005 at the age of 96, was instrumental in the labor movement, both locally and nationally. He was a huge supporter of unions. Even in his later years, he could often be found demonstrating and marching for fair labor practices.
But while he was an advocate for labor and unions, he was strongly against war. During the late ‘60s, Msgr. Rice marched arm-in-arm with King at the United Nations to protest the Vietnam War.
Historian and Author Charles McCollester said, Msgr. Rice “was the social justice conscience of the Catholic Church in Pittsburgh and its most famous labor priest.”
For several decades, Msgr. Rice dedicated his services to the city of Pittsburgh, which included the founding of the St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality, located in the Hill District, which offers shelter for homeless men, as well as more than 10 years as the head of the Holy Rosary Parish in Homewood. He also had a long-standing column in the Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper and a radio show on various local stations, which he used to communicate his message of equality and touch on issues found to be controversial during the time.
Like King, Msgr. Rice let his faith guide him in his belief that all people are created equal.
While each of these individuals is gone, their legacy lives on for others to follow.