The journey to racial justice is long, but every member of society can help even in simple ways, a former Obama White House official told hundreds of people gathered Monday for the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Breakfast in Minneapolis.
Valerie Jarrett, now CEO of the Obama Foundation, gave the keynote message at the largest of many events celebrating the civil rights leader around the Twin Cities and Minnesota.
She recalled the civil rights leader's words, saying that the "arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
Many see what's happening in the world and their hometown "and we are left with a feeling of hopelessness. … How do we really make progress?" said Jarrett, formerly a senior adviser to President Barack Obama. "Remember that arc is long, but it will bend far stronger and faster with each of you."
Organized by General Mills and the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), the MLK breakfast returned to an in-person gathering for the first time since the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020. The program's theme urged people to "keep moving forward."
Attendees included Gov. Tim Walz, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and state Attorney General Keith Ellison. Other events throughout the day included a celebration in Powderhorn Park, a Black youth talent showcase in north Minneapolis, a concert at the University of Minnesota and a reparations brunch in St. Paul.
"Doesn't it feel like a family reunion?" Laverne McCartney Knighton, area development director of UNCF, told the crowd gathered for breakfast. "The energy and the smiles, it really feels good, and y'all are looking good, too.
"The civil rights movement was not a fast process in gaining equal rights for all. In fact, it was and still is a long and arduous journey, but Dr. King pushed to keep moving forward. This method is for everyone, no matter how hard it may be: Keep moving in 2023."
McCartney Knighton urged attendees to donate to the UNCF for scholarships allowing students to attend historically Black colleges and universities. Through General Mills' partnership, the fund has provided nearly $7 million to support more than 400 programs and 37 academic institutions, according to the company.
UNCF President and CEO Michael Lomax recalled growing up as his journalist mother reported on the 1955-56 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott and met King. Later, she had King over to their home; Lomax recalled how "gracious and funny" the leader was during their visit.
Then his family moved from Los Angeles to Tuskegee, Ala., near Montgomery, as his mother continued writing about the civil rights movement for a range of publications.
Lomax recalled recently visiting the mayor of Montgomery — one of many Black leaders at City Hall — with his grandson and reflected on the work that King and the activists had put in all those decades before. Lomax noted the questions that followed the global uprising after Floyd's murder.
"People often ask, 'Was 2020 a moment or the beginning of a movement?' " Lomax said. "And I answer, 'Is there still injustice in the world? Is there still inequality?' Dr. King knew that the boycott was a powerful moment and it had to evolve into a powerful movement. For the remainder of his life, just a little over a decade, he focused and he never let up" even as he was vilified.
At a reparations brunch Monday afternoon in St. Paul, people gathered at the Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center to celebrate MLK Day by learning about reparations, an economic policy gaining attention locally.
This month, the St. Paul City Council unanimously voted to establish the St. Paul Recovery Act Community Reparations Commission, an advisory board that will explore reparations for descendants of slavery in the city.
Speakers emphasized that reparations are not handouts for Black people, but rather repayments such as on the investments they made to this country without being paid during slavery or that were taken from them, such as the Black St. Paul neighborhood destroyed for the construction of Interstate 94, said Trahern Crews of Black Lives Matter Minnesota.
"Our youth deserve justice and are owed a debt. Reparations is not charity; reparations is a debt for slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration and police brutality," Crews said.
Reparations is not a new idea and cities are laboratories to try out good ideas, St. Paul City Council Member Jane Prince said. She played a recording of King saying just that — that European immigrants were given land and taught to farm it, in contrast to Black Americans who were not.
"If we had provided every free slave with 40 acres and a mule, to start their life as free people farming their own land, we wouldn't have to be talking about reparations today," Prince said.
Diving deep on reparations and addressing the city's racial wealth gap was St. Paul's response to George Floyd, said Crews and other speakers from racial equity organizations committed to exploring the idea.
"St. Paul, Minnesota, is one of the biggest cities in America to pass a reparations ordinance like this," Crews said. "It's not a competition, but we feel like we have one of the best reparations ordinances in the country."