Bernadette Gray-Little, the top boss at the University of Kansas, grew up in a family with many children but little means.
Her parents couldn’t afford to send her and her siblings to college, Gray-Little said Monday as the guest speaker at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration put on by the Greater Wichita Ministerial League.
She made do with help from others, with scholarships and with government money, eventually earning a doctorate.
“Would I be able to make that same journey now?” KU’s 17th chancellor asked. “Possibly. But I think it would be harder to do today than it was in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.”
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Gray-Little noted that King orated his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at what officially was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Economic equality was at the heart of Gray-Little’s message Monday.
In King’s time, she said, people fought for the right to vote, the right to be served at restaurants, the right to ride a bus – at heart, to have the same rights as everyone.
Today, people are fighting for economic opportunity, she said.
Far too many people today, she said, “deny rights to the poor but blame them for being poor.”
Far too many people today, she said, want immigrants to do the work they won’t but don’t want them to have access to services.
Far too many people today, she said, are struggling to rise into the middle class and stay in the middle class.
“Many barriers have fallen” since King’s day, Gray-Little said. But the country, she said, is “falling backward in many areas.”
“The fates of many of our citizens are predestined” toward poverty, she said. That runs contrary to both King’s dream and the American dream, Gray-Little said.
Economic inequality, she said, “closes doors for our children and grandchildren that the civil rights movement opened for us. Inequality is crippling our communities spiritually. Inequality is about education. That was known in the 1960s and is equally known now.”
One’s level of education, she said, preordains one’s job, one’s income and one’s health.
“No one has ever been able to disprove that connection,” Gray-Little said. “Human capital is the key to economic prosperity.”
And yet there is a “disinvestment in our public schools and colleges,” she said.
As an educator, Gray-Little’s message Monday was that the greater community should “make sure no one is predestined to great poverty. We all benefit when our children have the opportunity to make full use of their God-given talents. A full day’s wage should bring you out of poverty. It’s time to renew our commitment to equality and for justice, for that will truly give us peace.”
Hundreds attended the celebration at Wichita State University’s Hughes Metropolitan Complex at 29th and Oliver.
Some came dressed to the nines, in suits and ties and dresses and Sunday hats.
City, county, state and national leaders attended and gave remarks.
Rep. Mike Pompeo reflected on the days when there had been opposition to making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday because of the cost. At that time, some 30 years ago, Kansas Sen. Bob Dole responded to fiscal conservatives balking at the holiday: “I suggest they hurry back to their pocket calculators and estimate the cost of 300 years of slavery followed by a century or more of economic, political and social exclusion and discrimination.”
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said King “dared to dream of a life better than what he was experiencing,” a life where “we would not be beaten or enslaved because of the color of our skin.”
He asked the audience to reflect on the question: “What do we look like as a nation, as a state, as a city” in 2014? He said he fears that “separate but not equal” is taking over.
Brewer touched on immigration reform, saying children born in the United States should not be separated from their parents because of where they were born.
The speakers drew rounds of applause, as did performances by the celebration choir and children’s choir.
“This is clearly a place that is infused with the Lord,” Pompeo said of the event.
The Ministerial League also gave out several awards during the celebration.
Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau received the Greater Wichita Ministerial League’s President’s Award.
Faust-Goudeau was the first African-American woman elected to the Kansas Senate. She accepted the award in honor of her mother, who she said worked endlessly for civil rights.
Also recognized at the celebration was Pastor Wade Moore of the Christian Faith Centre. He received the Martin Luther King Jr. Vision and Dreams Award. Moore is the incoming president of the league, taking over from Pastor Herman Hicks of the Greater Pentecostal Church of God in Christ.
The Wichita chapter of the NAACP received the league’s Spirit of Unity Award.