Journey for justice

By Mark Baker | Living Here | |

After all the VIPs — the mayor, a county commissioner, a University of Oregon provost, members of the UO Black Student Union — had given their speeches, Eric Richardson, president of the Eugene/Springfield NAACP chapter, asked if anyone else had anything to say.

Stacy Hoffman, quite literally, jumped at the chance.

“I want to say something!” the 33-year-old Springfield woman shouted.

And with that, she leaped onto the stage on the north side of Autzen Stadium, along the appropriately named Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, with her black-and-red “Black Lives Matter” sign in hand.

“I’m just thankful that everybody out here in Oregon is doing (this),” Hoffman told the few hundred people who assembled Monday morning for Eugene’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. March and Celebration, this year’s theme being “America’s Journey for Justice.”

“So, just keep the peace,” Hoffman added. “I want the people to stay together, to stay connected, and just know that Martin Luther King Jr. did it, so we can do it.”

Hoffman, who moved here from her native California in 2007, is part of what the 2010 U.S. Census says constitutes just 1.1 percent of Springfield’s population: blacks.

The numbers are not much higher in Eugene, where about 1.4 percent of the population is African-American.

What’s it like to be black in such a predominantly white community?

“Oh, wow, it’s interesting,” Hoffman said during the march from Autzen to downtown’s Shedd Institute for the Arts, as she pushed daughter Samaya, 3, in her stroller while another daughter, 11-year-old Stacy II, held the “Black Lives Matter” sign.

“I would like (Eugene-Springfield) to be more diverse,” Hoffman said. “I do get looks. I do feel different. I can feel my color out here. I want Oregon to get to a point where we don’t feel color. Where you don’t feel your race. I just want to feel that we’re one.”

That, of course, is what Monday’s march and celebration were all about.

But many who spoke, both before the march and at a Shedd celebration afterward, talked about how the nation’s decades-long effort to see less color, to see no color, must be a 365-days-a-year effort.

“There is work to be done,” Rabbi Ruhi Sophia Rubenstein, who moved to Eugene from New York last year to take the helm at Temple Beth Israel, told the crowd at the Shedd. “And we can’t just do that work once a year, can we? We are living in really fearful times.

“What do we do in the face of all these messages that incite us to fear?” Rubenstein asked. “We have to build stronger communities. The beloved community that Dr. King envisioned.”

Prior to the march, during about 30 minutes of speeches, Richardson used the word “intentions” to illustrate a salient point.

“I don’t want to belittle the fact that Dr. King died by a bullet,” said Richardson, who moved to Eugene with his family when he was 4, in the early 1970s, from a much blacker community, St. Louis. “And the bullet came from someone’s intentions. It’s the intentions that matter. And we want people to have good intentions with their lives and their hearts.

“So that’s why we’re here,” he said. “I think we can make a ripple effect.”

Richardson told the crowd he was greatly inspired by the voices of some young women from the UO who had taken the stage just moments before.

“You can feel the power,” he said, after UO students Shaniece Curry and Nicole Dodier, both members of the university’s Black Student Union, spoke. “You can feel the urgency of their demands. And, sometimes, as elders, as people who’ve been in this struggle, just working day to day to try to make ends meet, we forget about the urgency.”

Curry and Dodier, along with their fellow student union members, took the stage holding signs that said “Black is Beautiful” and “Black by Popular Demand.” Some wore black T-shirts that said “Flexin My Complexion.”

“Today, black students at the UO only represent 2 percent of our student body, and our black faculty is only 1 percent,” said Curry, also a member of the UO’s newly formed Black Student Task Force. That group has given the university a list of demands, ranging from changing the names of campus buildings they believe are named for known racists (such as Matthew Deady) to increasing the numbers of black and other minority faculty and providing more scholarships for students of color.

“Today, I march for students, black students in particular, who don’t have access to higher education,” Curry said.

“I march for my black brothers who are overrepresented in our prison systems,” she said. “I march for the women, black women in particular, who have been left out of the conversation of gender equality.”

Dodier said students at the UO, particularly black students, “cannot wait for the administration to make changes for us, which is why the Black Student Task Force was formed.”

The task force emerged in November after students, many of them black, marched through campus to the Johnson Hall administration building, on the heels of protests at the University of Missouri. That’s where the school’s president resigned in the wake of a football team-led outcry over inaction after slurs and sleights were targeted at black students.

Many who marched Monday appeared clearly affected by the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which began nationally in 2013 in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, in Sanford, Fla.

The movement has been spurred in recent years by several police shootings of young, unarmed black men and teenagers across the nation.

“No weapons; don’t shoot!” 15-year-old Tori Givens, a black North Eugene High School student who led the march with four fellow students from the school’s Multicultural Club, shouted into a bullhorn as the crowd waited to cross at Eighth Avenue and Mill Street.

Many enthusiastically repeated Givens’ words.

“There are black lives that need to be accounted for,” Givens said. All the shootings, he said, are “decreasing the (black) population.”

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkBakerRG . Email mark.baker@registerguard.com .