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Celebrating King, UMKC leader notes progress, challenges

Satisfaction and disappointment.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., if he returned today after 45 years, would experience both emotions, said Leo Morton, chancellor of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, who spoke at King holiday observances Saturday in Overland Park.

“I think he would be pleased that an African-American is serving as president, although he might be a little disappointed that it took us so long to do it,” Morton said.

King might also be gratified, Morton said, by the executive chairs filled by African-Americans leading Fortune 500 corporations such as McDonald’s, Xerox and Alcoa.

Morton noted that he is only one of several African-American leaders at area institutes of higher education, with other examples including the University of Kansas, Kansas City Kansas Community College and the Kansas City Art Institute.

“We just fired our second African-American head coach of the Chiefs,” Morton added, prompting laughter from those who filled the auditorium at Blue Valley West High School. “You talk about progress.”

But King likely would be dismayed, Morton said, at what one author has declared the “new Jim Crow.”

That is the “new industry” that has incarcerated a disproportionate number of minority Americans on a variety of charges, many of them drug-related, he said.

Morton spoke during the 21st annual King observance organized by the Johnson County Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Celebration Committee and the Johnson County chapter of the NAACP. Representatives of several youth dance and orchestra groups performed, and Dan Stock, president of the Overland Park City Council, read a proclamation praising the late civil rights leader.

Morton reminded his listeners that King prepared his “I Have a Dream” speech while he was being buffeted by many challenges in 1963, including his own incarceration in Birmingham, Ala.

But Morton also described how he had grown up in Birmingham and how today he realizes that the city’s black community still included many professionals who represented local examples of achievement and aspiration.

Morton said he benefited greatly from that. “You wouldn’t think about disappointing anyone in that environment.”

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