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Civil rights panel says more can be done

– It’s been 50 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Are things as good as they can get, or is there room for improvement?

For those at the Future of Civil Rights 2014 panel discussion Wednesday evening on the anniversary of that trailblazing legislation, it was clear that there is still plenty of room for improvement.

As one person in the audience at the University of Saint Francis Robert Goldstine Performing Arts Center was quick to point out, just because there are some black business leaders, legislators and even a black president of the United States, the problem is far from solved.

The panel seemed to agree.

“We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go,” said panelist John Dortch, who sits on the board of the Fort Wayne Black Chamber of Commerce.

Getting there is no easy task and will take the efforts of people from all walks of life.

For panelist Ruby Cain, an adult and community education adviser at Ball State University, the reason the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s was so successful was because so many groups came together for a common cause.

The leader mentioned most often throughout the evening was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the man credited with rousing a nation to its feet in the name of equality.

“It was Martin Luther King with his oratory, with his strategy of nonviolence,” said panelist Larry Lee of Leepoxy Plastics Inc. “The moral force of this man cannot be overstated, and the success of … getting all these groups to follow him.”

Cain echoed that sentiment, saying no one organization is as strong as combined organizations and recalled the adage that people who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

The panelists agreed that legislation alone will not close gaps among races in pay, employment, housing and education that still persist, but they were encouraged by the strides non-whites have made in politics.

“It speaks volumes,” Lee said of the 43 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a number that leaves plenty of room for growth but nonetheless is a number unimaginable a few decades ago.

As for the so-called education gap, panelist Crystal Bush of the New Zion Tabernacle Church questioned whether there was in fact an achievement gap or an “attitude gap” among educators.

She views teachers’ preconceived notions, racially biased tests and a lack of respect toward minority students as significant contributing factors to student performance.

As for the future and how Fort Wayne can play a role, Dortch stressed the need for mentors for the city’s young black population.

Panelist Jonathan Ray of the Fort Wayne Urban League said the extent of development on the city’s south and southeast sides, such as shopping centers and restaurants, is incredibly lacking for the population density in those areas.

He said those who want change need to be fully committed, not just somewhat interested in the cause.

City Councilman and panelist Geoff Paddock said the city is poised for a housing study to see how to make more affordable and decent opportunities for young adults.

He also touted ongoing investments in downtown as being good for all areas of the city, but he acknowledged that progress in the areas of equality is a “very slow effort” and that more could be done.

He hopes to see the developments described by Ray and others in the audience become a reality.

“I think it’s been long overdue,” Paddock said.

The discussion was sponsored by the university, Fort Wayne’s Martin Luther King Jr. Club and Frost Illustrated.