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VOL. 127 | NO. 204 | Thursday, October 18, 2012

Freedom Awards Winners Talk Important Decisions

By Bill Dries

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An audience of several thousand children from several local schools got a glimpse Tuesday, Oct. 16, of just how tentative the decisions that make history and change can be.

National Civil Rights Museum Freedom Award winner Bernard Lafayette said one of the mistakes of the civil rights movement was not teaching deeper political involvement once voting rights were secured in southern states.

(Photo: Bill Dries)

Each of the four winners of the National Civil Rights Museum Freedom Awards talked of different courses they might have taken during the annual forum at Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ.

“I never intended to do this,” said Marlo Thomas, honored for her work sustaining and growing St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Memphis institution founded by her father, Danny Thomas. “My father made it clear … that this was not going to be my burden to carry – or my brothers and sisters. We were relieved by that. It was psychologically brilliant. … We each found our own way to it.”

Bernard Lafayette, a founder of the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee who worked at the side of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, talked of “mistakes” in the movement.

Lafayette said in the push for a federal Voting Rights Act, he and others didn’t follow through with activism beyond voting.

“It’s not enough to vote and try to figure out who to vote for every four years or whatever,” he said. “We need to participate in government and that’s what the voting was all about. It was one way we could participate in government. You’ve got to go to the city council meetings. … People who are trying to make a difference need your help.”

Later, Lafayette said King had been approached and offered support to run for a Senate seat in Georgia.

“Martin Luther King thought he could be much more effective if he was able to get more people to participate. That was the goal of the nonviolent movement,” he added. “People don’t know this. Martin Luther King was offered a senatorial position in the state of Georgia on the condition that he would decrease or subside his political activities.”

Dr. George Jenkins, one of “The Three Doctors” – a group of childhood friends turned authors and motivational speakers who grew up in Newark, N.J., with a goal of going to medical school – said the three got a lot of bad advice about how hard it would be to make their goal.

“Most of the people who did well never really came back,” he said recalling more joyous parties in the neighborhood for a family member released from prison than for a family member who graduated. “We were left with a vacuum and we really didn’t have very many role models.”

After the three made their goal of being accepted at Seton Hall College with a promise of financial aid, the aid vanished when they were about to start. They went through a book listing scholarship opportunities.

“Every A matters – every good grade,” he said of the experience in the world of scholarships and college recruiters. “You’ll be the first one they look to and they’ll be throwing you money because you did well. You have to take that into consideration.”

As an economist, Muhammad Yunus, worked in and learned about banking and finance on a large scale.

He had come to regard conventional banking systems as “inherently weak,” especially when it came to another goal Yunus wanted to explore. He calls them “social businesses” – businesses founded on a cause or resolving a problem and not primarily a profit motive.

“I was doing small things. When you do small things you don’t get big opposition,” said the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner of his work when he returned to his native Bangladesh. “You are doing things close to people.”

The Grameen Bank, formed in 1983, today makes $1.5 billion in “tiny” loans to the poor. The concept has spread to 58 countries including the U.S. It includes encouraging savings accounts that are built with “tiny little amounts” from 8.5 million people.

“It’s money generated within the system,” he said of the returns that finance more loans. “We take the money generated in the system and loan it out just like any bank would do.”

The bank’s focus on poor women as the best loan candidates did draw powerful and violent opposition in Bangladesh and other countries as it grew.

“The impact on the family is so much better,” Yunus said of the emphasis on women as well as the bank’s policy of not using government or other outside money. “We always said just leave us alone. We can handle our own business.”

The awards for Yunus, Thomas, Jenkins and Lafayette are sponsored by the Hyde Family Foundations, Nike and International Paper Co.

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