Named the Golden Jubilee of the Civil Rights Act, the morning’s program highlighted the movement for equality five decades in the making. A packed room anxiously awaited a local hero in the archives of black history.
Black History Relived.
Racial segregation in the south was rampant. Separate but equal, although ruled unconstitutional, was very evident in every aspect of American life. As a young adult, Kredelle Petway was living in the south where Jim Crow laws reigned. While attending Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, she decided to protest for desegregation only to find herself arrested.
In July of 1961, Petway became a Freedom Rider as she, along with her father and brother, boarded a plane from Montgomery, AL to Jackson, MS and was again arrested for attempting to desegregate the airport there.
“There have been many sit-ins, boycotts, marches and various forms of protest for us to achieve some semblance of racial equality,” Petway said as she looked over the crowd gathered to celebrate equality among the races. “Otherwise we would not have such a diverse group to assemble here today. For that, we celebrate.”
Freedom Riders consisted of black and white volunteers who traveled throughout the south on buses for a period of about seven months to test the 1960 Supreme Court decision that declared segregation of interstate passengers illegal. It was met with threats and violence. As a Freedom Rider, Petway experienced firsthand the degradation and dehumanization African Americans endured during that volatile era in American history.
Although Petway acknowledged positive strides forward, she remembers a timeline that spanned the last 50 years; her tale a bit somber. Painting a picture of resistance from the general public and politicians alike, Petway urged African Americans to not be complacent and rest on the accomplishments of the past, but to continue to find non-violent ways to keep up the fight for true equality among the races.
Press on and build a road to a brighter and better future.
“Although the Civil Rights Act was signed into law it has not ended the Civil Rights Movement,” Petway argued telling of the struggles that she feels still lie ahead for African Americans here in Pinellas County and all over the world. “We’re still faced with the ravages of inequality in education, employment, and injustices in our legal systems, just to name a few.”
A sentiment YMCA Executive Director Vernon Bryant seconded. Affiliated with the Suncoast Greater Ridgecrest Branch, Bryant yearns for all races and all ages to come together. He hopes society will realize the dream Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and the countless number of unnamed faces who were threatened, beaten and ridiculed for their part in the desegregating America.
“I want this community to be better,” Bryant said looking for like-minded folks to join together and make a difference today and in the years to come. “We must continue to remember all of the martyrs, the dreamers, the workers and leaders, and work to help make their dreams a reality.” A vision he hopes the younger generation will emulate, instead of making decisions that he feels too often sets the civil rights movement back.
“One of the things that pains me often is the fact that I see our kids throwing away all the things that we’ve done,” Bryant expressed, “privileges that many have fought and died for.” Florida Department of Children and Families Regional Director Mike Carroll took a moment to urge the younger generation to continue to carry the torch. “Young folks look at the world differently than we do,” he said speaking of the athletes he works with that don’t see a person’s race but their abilities on the field. “That’s what makes me hopeful that the next 50 years will be better.”
Carroll believes the civil rights movement happened because so many ordinary people from varying races and backgrounds chose to take a stand, some at personal risk to their own lives and safety, and demanded something different.
“People from all walks of life stood shoulder to shoulder and said this is enough,” he said. “We’re gonna change the world, and together they did.” And in the spirit of celebration the audience joined together in a spectacular rendition of the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Lakewood student Sydni Neal performed a dance and Constance Shaw sang a solo in the true spirit of the Golden Jubilee. The tone once again turned dire as Lorietta Shirley who oversees child welfare in Pinellas and its neighboring counties, spoke of the over 2,800 children involved in the child welfare system in Pinellas county alone. It’s the fourth largest in the state. Shirley threw out some more statistics. With over 40 percent of the kids in foster care comprising of blacks, when African Americans only represent 17 percent of the general population, there seems to be an over-representation of minority youth in the child welfare system.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us to address some of the social injustices and issues that our African American youth are facing in our community,” Shirley said. And one of those issues is the lack of foster homes that serve minority youth. “Ideally we want to keep our kids in their own communities,” she continued stating that foster homes are needed in every single neighborhood in Pinellas County. “Right now if a minority kid comes into the foster care system, it’s highly unlikely that we’re going to be able to keep them within the neighborhood in which they live.”
Shirley urged the community to come together, like the political activists and freedom riders of the past, and make a difference in the issues plaguing the black community today. The afternoon ended on a more celebratory note as lunch was served to the room full of supporters acknowledging 50 years of change in America.