Superintendent Lewis calls for greater urgency on racial justice at annual MLK breakfast

photo by: Screenshot/Jayhawk Rotary Club

Lawrence Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Lewis speaks Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day community breakfast hosted by the Jayhawk Rotary Club at Maceli's banquet hall.

Lawrence Superintendent Anthony Lewis is a long way from Montgomery, Ala. — the “Cradle of the Confederacy” — where he began his teaching career. Now, he’s a leader in a community that was founded as part of the struggle to end slavery.

Regardless of its founding by abolitionists, Lawrence still has a lot of work to do on racial justice and ought to find some of that long-ago urgency of its founders, Lewis told a crowd Monday morning at an event honoring the late civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.

“Has Dr. King’s dream come true, or has it turned into a nightmare?” Lewis asked the crowd.

Lewis — who grew up in the Deep South and was the principal of an elementary school just blocks from Rosa Parks’ home in Montgomery — said he’s seen much progress in his lifetime on racial justice. But his keynote address at the Jayhawk Rotary Club’s annual MLK Day breakfast employed much of the same urgent language many of the country’s leading racial justice activists use today.

He told the crowd that the racial justice movement doesn’t need allies as much as it needs co-conspirators, a phrase that has gained currency among activists in recent months.

“Allies are good, but they stand on the sidelines … we need people to take risks,” Lewis said.

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At one point, Lewis invoked a historical tie-in to Lawrence, saying “we need that abolitionist thinking,” crediting abolitionists like those who founded Lawrence as being people of action who refused to allow slavery to continue to exist.

He cited a more recent example of Bree Newsome, a Black woman who in 2015 removed the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds in an act of civil disobedience as fellow activist James Tyson, a white man, stood guard. Facing arrest and potential hostility, the two took action nonetheless, Lewis said.

“Let us move with a fierce sense of urgency,” Lewis said. “We must do something to protect the lives of this next generation.”

Lewis cited several moments of progress the country has made in race relations. The most recent was the Jan. 5 Georgia elections of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff — a Black man and a member of the Jewish faith, respectively — to the U.S. Senate. The next day, however, was the raid on the U.S. Capitol by angry supporters of President Donald Trump.

Lewis denounced that riot and accused Trump of sending a “white supremacist SOS to the Proud Boys,” a far-right, neo-fascist group that has engaged in political violence. Lewis also said that he believed the group that scaled walls and broke into the offices of lawmakers would have been treated much differently by authorities if the group was made up largely of Black Americans.

Quoting King, Lewis told the crowd it was important to remember that “the road ahead will not always be smooth.” He urged people to embrace new attitudes and not fear change, even if it brings disruption with it.

“I want all of you to see and celebrate color,” Lewis said. “Let’s change our beliefs. As we change our beliefs, the more we will change our actions. To disrupt oppressive systems, we must be willing to disrupt ourselves.”

Monday’s event was the 14th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast sponsored by the Jayhawk Breakfast Rotary Club. About 50 people attended in person at Maceli’s Banquet Hall, while a larger audience watched the event online.

In addition to the keynote address, the Rotary Club also awarded the Pastors Barbee, Dulin and Winn Minority Scholarship to Aris Grady and Audrey Nguyen-Hoang, both students at Bishop Seabury Academy.


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