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On 40th anniversary of King's death, Tri-State residents say race relations not ideal

April 04, 2008|By MARLO BARNHART

Bob Petties was in high school when the Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated.

"It affected me deeply," said Petties, the executive director of Memorial Recreation Center on North Avenue in Hagerstown. "It seemed to me that when a leader spoke out for the poor and minorities, something happened to them."

Nonetheless, Petties said he believes race relations have improved a lot, dramatically in some areas and more subtly in others.

"We're not there yet, but I'm optimistic for the future," Petties said.

It was 40 years ago today that King was struck down by an assassin's bullet as he stood on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn.

Four decades later, Petties, 56, said he believes King's message continues to resonate around the world.

"His message is alive in the hearts and minds of many, many people," Petties said.

James Tolbert, a Charles Town, W.Va., resident and former state president of West Virginia's chapter of the NAACP, said he believes race relations have improved, but significant challenges remain.

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"They've improved, there's no doubt about that," said Tolbert, who is in his 70s and stepped down in August 2007 from the leadership post he held for 21 years.

Though he cited improved access to education and employment opportunities for blacks, Tolbert said a gap in academic achievement, health care and the disproportionate numbers of blacks in prisons across the nation are troubling.

According to a report released Tuesday by America's Promise Alliance, the graduation rate in the 2003-04 school year for 17 school districts among the nation's 50 largest cities was less than 50 percent. The national graduation rate is 74.2 percent for suburban districts and 73.2 percent for rural districts.

"There's very little attention being given to the achievement gap," Tolbert said.

Sylvia Bell of Hagerstown said that even after all these years, and particularly the 40 years since King's assassination, she continues to be saddened by what she describes as merely surface progress in race relations.

Bell, a member of the 1956 graduating class of North Street School, the last graduating class at the school that was attended only by black students, said she thinks things today would be a lot different had King lived.

She said no one stepped up to fill his shoes.

"You know race relations haven't really gone anywhere," the 69-year-old Bell said. "People have gotten very clever about hiding it. They say there is integration, but ..."

While she said the number of blacks living in Washington County has increased, many don't work here, but instead commute to the metro area.

"I walk in and out of stores around here and I don't see many who look like me," Bell said.

Billy Washington, a 68-year-old retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel from Chambersburg, Pa., was asked if he thought that race relations had improved.

"It would depend on the day you ask that question. I would make a guess and say when you look at the big picture, yes, especially from when I was a kid," Washington said.

For black Americans of earlier generations, there were plenty of walls, but few doors, he said.

"So many doors are open, when you are prepared, you can walk through them," Washington said.

Pastor Ed Poling was in college when King was assassinated. He thought it was tragic, but his roommate at Penn State was delighted, the Hagerstown Church of the Brethren clergyman said.

"It was like daggers inside when I heard that response from him," said Poling, who is white.

Poling was saddened by King's death, by the fact that a man of peace was struck down in such a violent way, he said.

Society still struggles with a lot of the same issues it faced then, he said.

"To have a serious candidate for president who is from the African-American community is wonderful, but some of the things that divide our nation are still there," he said.

Poling said he notices that people still prefer to worship with others of their same cultural background. His own church is primarily white.

He said he is encouraged to see neighborhoods becoming more diverse.

"I think we're learning, but it's a very slow process," Poling said.

A number of people who were approached Thursday at a shopping area declined to answer questions about the state of race relations. Curtis Duncan of Hagerstown, however, had some thoughts.

"It's not good," he said.

People avoid talking about race relations, but it's a topic that needs to be out in the open, said Duncan, who is black.

"No one wants to discuss it," Duncan said.

Boonsboro native Sandra Shifler said she thinks people are judgmental of other races.

Younger people tend to be more tolerant, said Shifler, 61, who is white. She said she believes race relations have improved over the years, but people still stigmatize others.

Staff writers Doan Aines, Erin Julius and Matthew Umstead contributed to this story.

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