King’s legacy alive and strong in North Hills

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A collaboration of North Hills community groups recently celebrated the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The 14th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Breakfast: Honoring Diversity in our Community, was sponsored in part by the North Hills Ebony Women Inc., at La Roche College.

The mission of the Breakfast is to recognize people in the community who act as agents of change and embody the ideals of King. Alexis Werner, a senior at Shaler Area High School was given the Spirit of Unity Award, along with a $1,000 scholarship for her efforts and work for racial and social justice. Since her early teens, Werner has facilitated numerous conferences and workshops on diversity and classism at the high school. She founded the group Seeds of Hope, which has grown into a national nonprofit origination assisting hundreds of American veterans. She has also participated and has been a leader and member of all six of the organizations in the Youth Advocacy League, a social justice program for high school students. These are just a few of the organizations with which Werner is involved in, her commitment to social justice has been recognized by both the Jefferson Organization and the YWCA Racial Justice Award for Youth Achievement.

ALEXIS WERNER—Spirit of Unity awardee.

ALEXIS WERNER—Spirit of Unity awardee.

In accepting her award, Werner thanked her family for raising her to have a mindset that equality belongs to everyone. “Regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion, we can all be one,” she said.

The event featured keynote speaker Tony Norman, associate editor and columnist, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who recalled some of his favorite columns he’s written about King and his legacy.

When Norman, a Philadelphia native, initially took the podium, he spoke about Pittsburgh’s racial history. “When older White people talk about race relations in Pittsburgh most say things were a lot better when they were growing up, you would think Pittsburgh was a racial utopia.”

Norman went on to say that Pittsburgh wasn’t any different than Dallas, Philadelphia or Cincinnati. The city fit into the racist status quo that reigned in other American big cities. “Pittsburgh was just being Pittsburgh at a time when the whole country was profoundly wrong in the way it treated Black people.”

Citing conformity as Pittsburgh’s biggest sin, Norman called Pittsburgh the most conformist of cultures. “It has never been outwardly mean-spirited as most other places, though the police have always done their best to keep pace with their big city rivals across the state and across the country.”

Saying that he’d be rich if he had a dollar for every call or email from a White person who insists that growing up in the lower Hill District or East Liberty in the 1940s and 1950s, they never noticed color. “All they knew at the time was that the ‘colored’ people next door were their friends. They weren’t Black. They didn’t know that ‘Black people’ existed until they left their old neighborhoods for whatever all-White enclave their families eventually ended up in.” He said people continue saying they have no idea how they ended up in all-White neighborhoods because their parents didn’t have a racists bone in their bodies.

“They assure me that it’s a mystery and has nothing at all to do with race,” he said.

“Back then no one talked about slavery or the legacy of structural inequality or other touchy subjects.”
Norman said the folks who call him were busy playing stickball with their Negro neighbors. It was a blissful time full of wonder and promise if everyone pulled together, worked hard and ignored agitators. “As long as every Negro had Jackie Robinson’s personality, everything would be alright.”

Those agitators included Martin Luther King Jr. and others who talked of civil rights, because they taught that Black folk aren’t really happy with their second-class status.

TONY NORMAN

TONY NORMAN

Pittsburgh is still there in many ways, Norman continued. “Still nostalgic for good old days and in quiet denial about what those good old days were really all about. That’s why occasions like this are so important.

This is a place where we’re allowed to remember a great American and the movement that he spearheaded without ignoring the uncomfortable realities of his vision.”

Norman then went on say that instead of writing the usual speech and saying the predictable things expected at such an event, he decided to read a few of his favorite columns that he wrote about the Civil Rights leader.

Other community organizations involved with sponsoring the breakfast include: Pittsburgh North People for Peace, North Hills Community Outreach, YWCA Greater Pittsburgh Center for Race and Gender Equity, League of Women Voters, American Association of University Women, North Hills Community Outreach, North Hills Anti Racism Coalition and Sisters of Divine Providence.

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