King ceremony speaker says equality is still 'a work in progress'

“We don’t let colored boys borrow books.”

Those words, spoken by a librarian in the 1960s in North Carolina, were recalled Sunday by Dr. Edward T. Joyner, the keynote speaker at Sunday’s Martin Luther King ceremony at Milford City Hall.

He was that “colored boy."

Joyner's remarks Sunday — with the backdrop of racial tensions dividing police and the black community in some parts of the country over the past months — touched on how attitudes need to change among all and how equality is still a work in progress.

During a ceremony that included dancing by the First Baptist Church Youth Dancers, and singing by the Foran Advanced Vocal Ensemble and Celentano Magnet School students, Dr. Joyner acknowledged the three uniformed police officers, including Chief Keith Mello, in attendance and praised the work they do.

“I have a sense of how hard their job is,” Joyner told the crowd.

He said if a teacher does something wrong, people tend to blame all teachers; if a minister does something wrong, people blame all ministers.

“We should not project that prejudice, which we don’t like ourselves,” he said.

Tension between police and the black community reached a peak in 2014 after the August shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; and the death of Eric Garner, 43, in New York, in July.

Dr. Joyner, who grew up in North Carolina and attended segregated schools, said that he suffered prejudice from police and others when he was younger, but he doesn’t blame all police officers for that.

“I won’t blame the police officers in this room for what happened to me when I was 12,” he said.

Dr. Joyner said when he was growing up in Farmville, N.C., he could not enter the public library or swim in the public swimming pool.

He recalled the story of being turned away from the library when he was 15.

He had gone there because he couldn’t find the book he needed in the school library.

“I thought if I was polite, they would hand me the book out the door,” he said.

So he knocked on the door and asked for the book.

The librarian turned him away with the explanation that, “We don’t let colored boys borrow books.”

Examining society

Joyner is executive director of the School Development Program at the Yale Child Study Center and has presented throughout the world and trained educators and social policy makers in areas related to child and adolescent development and large scale change.

He is the author of the award winning Ebony-Jet Guide to Black Student Excellence, for which he was invited to the White House. He is the co-author of six books addressing the education of poor and/or minority children.

During Sunday’s ceremony, sponsored by The Links Inc., Joyner quoted Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Then he offered his spin on that idea: “The unexamined society is not worth having.”

He suggested that many leaders in Washington D.C., need to remember that the United States was built by people who faced disadvantages; he called to mind the words of Emma Lazarus engraved on a tablet at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.”

Joyner said if Martin Luther King were here today, he would be concerned about the quality of life for the poor, and people’s continued tendency to be less accepting of people who are different than they are in terms of race, religion and sexual orientation.

Dr. King would be pleased that there are black networks on television, but disappointed in their content. He would be happy there are many successful black entertainers, but not happy about their song lyrics and messages.

If Dr. King were to look into peoples’ homes today, he wouldn’t be happy that some families spend more money on sneakers than on books, Joyner said.

Dr. King would not be happy that the “N” word, “the most despicable word in the English language, has been elevated to an art form.”

“We have miles to go before we sleep,” Joyner said.

“America,” he said, “is a work in progress,” and he said it’s up to people in society today to pick up where Dr. King left off.

Adversity

When he returned to the library of his youth it was to deliver a donation. He recounted for the staff there the story of how he had been turned away when he was a boy.

“I’m not mad about it,” he said. “Adversity helps build character.”