News Column

New Mexicans Reflect on Strides Toward Racial Equality

Aug 29, 2013

New Mexico has made some strides toward racial equality in the 50 years since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington, but prominent community leaders say there's still a lot of work to be done.

"New Mexico is making progress, because it's been accepted it's a multicultural state, finally," said Albuquerque NAACP President Harold Bailey. "But as far as coming a long way, I think we have some other things to really deal with."

Recounting on Wednesday the 50th anniversary of King's famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Bailey said too many African-Americans and American Indians still are falling through the cracks in New Mexico.

He pointed to higher unemployment rates in those minority communities and a disproportionately high representations of those populations in New Mexico prisons.

"We've made great strides, but it seems like attitudes have not changed," Bailey said. "We still have work to do, and it's our individual and collective responsibil- ity to implement those principles of fair play, justice and inclusion."

Nancy Hollander, an Albuquerque lawyer who participated in the March on Washington in 1963, said more progress should have been made to realize King's dream.

"I've celebrated that day for a long time," said Hollander, who recalled being surprised how quiet the crowd of thousands became as King began to speak in 1963. At the time, she said, she didn't realize how significant the moment was.

"I just wish we made more progress than we have," she said. "Certainly, things in many respects are different than they were 50 years ago. But in a lot of ways, they aren't. We lock up too many people. Our laws are too punitive. We haven't seemed to learn much from Martin Luther King's discussion about how to approach the world without confronting everything."

State Treasurer James Lewis, the first African-American elected to New Mexico statewide office, said New Mexicans have shown an ability to consider candidates for public office on their merits rather than their skin color.

When Lewis was first elected state treasurer in 1986, just five African-American politicians held statewide office nationwide, he said.

"I think New Mexico for years and years has looked at the person," Lewis said. "I think that's one of the areas where New Mexico has sort of been a leader."

Despite the gain, Lewis said he senses some apathy among New Mexico youth about the history behind civil rights here, and how far the state and nation have come.

"I do see sort of a little apathy and complacency with a lot of the youth who may not quite understand what this is all about," Lewis said. "... I think we're standing on the shoulders of a lot of people who made a lot of sacrifices."

Joycelyn Jackson, coordinator of multicultural education for Albuquerque Public Schools, said students in New Mexico sometimes struggle to see how much has changed in terms of civil rights.

"There's a subtleness about it, and unless you really understand the dynamics, and you understand what it means when the equalities are not there, you kind of miss them until it affects you directly," Jackson said.

"... When it does happen, they don't understand why, and they don't really realize the sacrifices that many, many people across cultures made so they could be sitting in nice classrooms."

Source: (c)2013 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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