The Skanner Foundation's 37th Annual MLK Breakfast on Jan. 16 was a mix of celebration and rumination on work left to be done to secure the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision. (View the video below.)
Spirits were high as the sold-out event was held in-person at the Holiday Inn, Columbia River, for the first time since the start of the pandemic, with hundreds of elected officials and community leaders mingling and enjoying gospel performances by Trenelle Doyle and Dr. JerMichael Riley, alongside inspiring speeches and the presentation of The Skanner Foundation scholarships to 34 high school seniors and renewing college students.
“The students are so inspiring,” Gov. Tina Kotek told The Skanner, adding the scholarships ceremony was her favorite part of the yearly event. “There’s always a great speaker, but hearing all the great stories from the students as they get their awards – it’s very impressive.”
Kotek, who was sworn into office last week and enthusiastically welcomed by the audience, said the breakfast was her first large public event as governor.
“This audience, this dream team for justice, doesn’t come together by osmosis.
"It comes together because two wonderful people right here, Bobbie Foster and Bernie, put this together,” U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told the crowd.
This year’s Drum Major for Justice Award celebrated Kimberly Moreland, a community historian and president of Oregon Black Pioneers. Her work in urban planning gave way to a career in historic preservation.
“I think a lot of times in our community the Black history gets erased because oftentimes, African Americans settle in areas that are now threatened by development, and so a lot of resources are torn down and demolished without second thought about the importance of that history,” Moreland said. “Because African American historic sites aren’t architectural gems. Sometimes it’s buildings we pass every day and we don’t realize how important these properties are to the history of African Americans in our community. As we identify the histories of these buildings, we bring light to how important these buildings played in the development of our city, as well as the history of our African American community.
“As a member of the historical landmark commission, I’m really hoping that we can convince the city to update the Historic Resource Inventory so we could include those properties that may not fit the traditional architectural significance of historic properties, but have more cultural significance.”
Keynote speaker Eugene Hamilton, a community advocate and educational consultant, spoke with a passion and insight reminiscent of the famed orator being honored.
“In our grand quest to find accounts of people of color, don’t you forget that the dream of Dr. King is still alive today.
"When you hear about that single mother who works three jobs to educate her children so that they might have an opportunity to be somebody, the dream is still alive. We celebrate Dr. King’s legacy when we capture the story of the father that did not have a college degree, yet he worked from sunup to sundown to ensure that every last one of his children had a college education. Dr. King would dream and remind us of the reality that we’ve got to highlight teachers and educators who have helped us along the way.”
Hamilton said, “I declare to you today that this far, excuse my French, ain’t enough. We’ve come this far by faith, but we’ve got miles yet to go. This far ain’t enough. We’ve come this far by faith, but understand, with our brothers and our sisters with us, we will reach the promised land.”
Even as the country celebrated a holiday in King’s honor, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) could attest to the challenges of seemingly uncontroversial efforts to pay tribute to the civil rights icon.
“I worked with (The Skanner co-founder) Bernie to rename a street after Dr. King when I was on the city council, and that was a real experience,” Blumenauer told The Skanner. “We found out some of the latent racism here.
"It was harder than it should have been.
"But I’m proud that we were able to do it, and I’m proud of the partnership with him, to get that along the finish line.”
Some were present who had a personal link to King.
“He was the father of my schoolmates,” Oregon Sen. Lew Fredrick (D-Portland) told The Skanner. Frederick reminisced about conversations he had with King around the dinner table when the senator was only 12 years old.
“He knew that he was not going to get everything done,” Frederick said.
“The Civil Rights Movement has not stopped.
"And that’s the key element. We have to continue to revitalize it, and to explain what’s going on. That’s how I look at it.”
He added, “People have begun to recognize that you don’t get something done right away. It’s not a one-time situation. You have to continue talking about it, you have to continue identifying where you want to go. Because you may not get there, but you want to make sure that other folks understand that it’s possible to do it when you keep moving, step by step.”
Rather than pay lip service to a whitewashed imagining of Dr. King, the elected leaders present instead acknowledged the depth of his devotion to economic justice and the dismantling of systemic racism, emphasizing the policy work that was underway to achieve greater equity for Black Oregonians and Black Americans.
“In the last two years we’ve had 21 states enact 42 measures that went down the hill instead of up the mountain top putting new barriers to the ballot box,” U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said. “In 2022, Ron Wyden and I, two days after MLK Day, were on the floor of the Senate fighting to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, and we had 50 senators and a vice president, Kamala Harris, ready to pass that bill…but that Jim Crow relic, the filibuster, struck once again to strike down voting rights. We have to reform the filibuster to have justice for all in the United States of America.
“The bill that was killed would end gerrymandering, which attacks equal representation for all. The bill that was killed would have stopped the dark money where billionaires put in hundreds of millions of dollars and it is never disclosed who they are, corrupting our campaign system. And most importantly, it would have defended the ballot box for all, including the practices we have of early voting and vote by mail, so that there are no election day shenanigans that could be used anywhere in the country to stop people from voting. We need to win that bill and we will continue to fight in the U.S. Senate.”
Merkley celebrated Oregon’s recent move to delete wording from the state constitution that allowed exploitative labor practices – a form of modern slavery – in prisons, and vowed to continue the fight on the federal level.
“Those 14 words, they led to the Black codes that put hundreds of thousands of people into prison for crimes such as not yielding the sidewalk, or changing jobs without permission of an employer, or loitering. And then they were put into slavery,” he said.
“We are in a march to now get those 14 words out of the 13th amendment.
"I’m leading that fight and I will not stop until we amend (the federal constitution).”
Oregon Sen. James Manning (D-Eugene) drew a direct line between King’s message and the current oppressive housing market, which disproportionately excludes would-be homeowners of color.
“Dr. King inheritably links civil rights with labor and economic justice,” Manning said. “In 1957, Dr. King condemned the tragic inequities of an economic system which takes necessities from the masses and gives luxuries to the classes. This is one of the ongoing problems that we have in society.”
Noting that home ownership is an important opportunity for escaping poverty, he said, “There is a movement by hedge funders to come in, buy up all of the property, price out any future person who wants or desires to buy a home. We have to make sure that we are fighting with this. I need you to stand with me on this. Can you stand with me?” to cheers from the audience.
View the event here: