A decade ago on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Minneapolis, Vernon Jordan talked about the rubble left behind after tearing down legal walls of discrimination. This week, Jordan returned with an updated message on that theme: Today, America is still struggling to clear the debris and other fallout from years of racism and bias.
Jordan, the longtime civil rights leader, returned to Minneapolis on Monday to again give the keynote address at the 25th annual local Martin Luther King breakfast. The event, sponsored by General Mills and the local United Negro College Fund, attracts several thousand.
In recent years, Jordan has been known as an adviser to former President Bill Clinton and as a Washington and New York power broker. However, earlier in his career he was a civil rights lawyer, leader and president of the National Urban League. In 1980, Jordan survived an assassination attempt by a white supremacist. He is now managing director of a New York investment firm.
While Jordan was offering sage advice about that continuing battle on one side of town, people from the Black Lives Matter group were gathering in St. Paul. Like King, they demonstrate against the mistreatment of African-Americans. Fifty years after King and others marched for human dignity, the deaths of some black men at the hands of police are once again prompting demonstrations across the nation.
Jordan spoke about how King would feel about today’s America. He said King would shed tears of joy over some of the progress made on equity and race relations. But he would weep in sorrow over ongoing issues of police brutality, education, health and income disparities between whites and people of color. But King would not be resigned to accept what causes those sorrows.
Most would agree that the late civil rights icon would be right there with contemporary marchers. The “I Am A Man’’ placards carried by the black workers King marched with in the 1960s bore the same sentiment as “Black Lives Matter’’ signs do today.
King would be there to peacefully raise the issues, speaking out against unjust discriminatory treatment, continuing to raise awareness. And beyond that, he’d stand with those of good will to take action.
And as Jordan told the attentive crowd, those actions must be wise, not rash; measured, not steeped in blind rage. Rioting, burning neighborhoods, or even blaming or cursing all police are not the answers.
In a reference to the film “Selma,” about the march King led across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama 50 years ago, Jordan said the current protests “remind us that there are many bridges yet to be crossed, many corners and neighborhoods where people of color cannot breathe.’’
Just as demonstrators asked after Selma, current demonstrators should ask: “What now? What’s next?”
Jordan believes a big part of the solution is not a new approach, but one that can be very effective. Getting more people voting, informed on the issues, is key, he says.
And while that’s not the only strategy, it can help drive change. A more involved, informed citizenry can reject or un-elect those who allow inequities to persist. They can put pressure on systems.
That responsibility, Jordan rightly said, falls on every individual.
“We are ready to get arrested,’’ he said. “But are we ready to build institutions?’’