Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

January 17, 2011


Host: Ted Simons

MLK Holiday Special

  |   Video
  • A special program honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others who have fought, and continue to fight, for human rights. Guests include ASU Professor of History Dr. Matthew Whitaker and Alfredo Gutierrez, a political activist and former legislative leader.
Guests:
  • Dr. Matthew Whitaker - Professor of History, ASU
  • Alfredo Gutierrez - political activist
Category: Culture   |   Keywords: MLK, holiday,

View Transcript
Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Today, Arizona and the rest of the nation observe a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others who have fought, and continue to fight, for human rights. We'll take a look at Arizona's civil rights protests of the '60s, and immigration rallies of today. Joining me is Dr. Matthew Whitaker, a history professor at Arizona state university. Dr. Whitaker specializes in both African-American history and civil and human rights. Also here is Alfredo Gutierrez who, as a young man, marched with Cesar Chávez, and led student protests at ASU. He went on to become a leader in Arizona's legislature. He's now returned to his activist roots in pursuit of social justice for Arizona's Latino community. Thanks for joining us. When I say civil rights what are we tacking about?

Matthew Whitaker: I think about those rights afforded by the constitution, our documents of freedom that regulate our mobility, where we can go, what we can do and how we relate to one another but I think of specific rights afforded by the constitution as they've evolved including amendments to regulate our movement and lives.

Ted Simons: What does the phrase mean to you, Alfredo?

Alfredo Gutierrez: Evolved to human rights and the reason is our presence in this country begins with conquest and a treaty, an agreement that the residents of this -- Mexican residents of the territories were going to enjoy the benefits of citizens but we were white that was 1848 And at that time, only white people could do that. We began a history in this country of being denied what had been agreed to in treaty and to this very day, people say go back to Mexico. So we -- you negotiation the documents in our case, in our case include a treaty. So I use the term human rights today.

Ted Simons: In terms of being an historian, civil and human rights, talk about your background.

Matthew Whitaker: I was born and raised in Phoenix, I'm an Arizona native. I attended Arizona state University and historically been interested in human beings and had you we treat one another and the mechanisms that we create in our society that help us treat each other well. Going back to the early stages of republic and the early day. I Agree that human rights is a appropriate term to use in certain situations because people use civil rights as an crutch and excuse to deny humane treatment to people based on the fact that there's no specific statute that forbids something we all know we shouldn't do.

Ted Simons: Back in the day, though, when civil rights was still a new term and certainly civil rights protests becoming a headline in and of itself, you were involved in Arizona.

Alfredo Gutierrez: Indeed I was. I came back from the army and -- in the '60s and became very much an activist for human rights, the civil rights, the movement against the war. I remember -- remember, I was a veteran against the war, having seen what I'd seen. And interestingly, in my case, began to focus more and more on the least of our community. Which were the farm workers and working with farm workers and Cesar, and for a great deal of time I did that, and then went back to the university and quickly thrown out of the university for organizing because of laundry workers that were being under-paid and we felt abused.

Ted Simons: I want to get more on both of your background here. Historian, activist and mix and match. Before your struggles, Arizona had struggles to pass accommodation bill in the 1960s. And this involved Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale. We have a video. Let's take a look.
Narrator: Sometime in the fire--- In the early 1960, the American struggle for civil rights hit full stride in the deep south. A place in time familiar to almost every American. Over a thousand miles to the west, Phoenix, Arizona, gave rise to an obscure but formative movement in the form of African American civil rights.

Matthew Whitaker: Phoenix was considered the Mississippi of the west by many people who migrated here. Once they migrated here, once they arrived, they found a segregated city.

Herbert Ely: The Ku Klux Klan was strong in the '20s and '30.

Narrator: Two prominent figures led the civil right struggle in the southwest -- Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale.

Matthew Whitaker: Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale were certainly the most visible and perhaps the most prominent civil rights activists in the American southwest. They knew Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater. Just about everyone.
Herbert Ely: Lincoln had guts. He would call me and say, let's go have lunch. Oh, my, well, I know -- I know, from Lincoln, it would be a restaurant that no black man had been to before.

Matthew Whitaker: Eleanor was very sophisticated, extremely cultures. But when the time came, she was right out on the streets-- marching.

Herbert Ely: She was the rose of the civil rights movement. She is an marvelous woman.

Matthew Whitaker: The Ragsdale kids in general were very active.
Lincoln Ragsdale Jr: Sometimes my parents would pull us out of class, so we would go on marches because they felt it was significant and a historical moment in time.

Narrator: During the civil rights movement, the Ragsdales and other leaderships in Phoenix focused on a number of key fronts of the first focused on the desegregation of hotels and restaurants and other areas of public access.
Lincoln Ragsdale Jr: You were not able to go into restaurants and eat or use the facilities.

Matthew Whitaker: The places of public accommodation were segregated and the cemeteries were segregated.

Herbert Ely: What people can’t comprehend today is You see a black man in the restaurant anyplace in Phoenix, what else is new? Nobody raises anything and properly so. That was not the case years ago.

Narrator: In 1963, Herb Ely, the Ragsdales and other leaderships helped support a civil rights bill considered by the Arizona state senate.

Herbert Ely: The debate in Arizona, was this was an invasion of the sacredness of property rights and to many of us, we said to hell it is. There are certain property rights that have to be overridden by human rights.
Matthew Whitaker: And there were marches at the capitol calling for public accommodation. They were intense and it was hot, this was Phoenix, the temperatures in the 100s of degrees. Protest songs and lift every voice and sing. We shall overcome. You had folks on the west side and the south side of the capitol involved in tense conflicts with the police. This was a site of intense protests and people began in the lower level of the rotunda and moved up the stairs to this level, sitting up against the walls and moving up to the higher levels.

Lincoln Ragsdale Jr: I was about nine years old and on the second floor and the police were removing everybody and the police officer picked me up and asked me why was I marching? And I said because of our freedom.

Matthew Whitaker: In 1964, the public accommodations bill was passed in Arizona in advance of the civil rights act passed at the national level.

Herbert Ely: In terms of public accommodation, Phoenix was ahead of the rest of the country.

Matthew Whitaker: It was a major accomplishment.

Narrator: Another key accomplishment in the southwestern civil rights movement was the desegregation of schools. Carver High was a segregated school until 1953 when the state set precedent by passing the first school desegregation law in the country. The school is now a museum where former student Tommie Williams volunteers as a tour guide.
Tommie Williams: How many of you know that this was formerly the Phoenix unioncolored high school?

>> Phoenix was the first city to desegregate in 1953, one year before the brown decision.

Tommie Williams: It brought attention, hopefully a little pride to our state.
Matthew Whitaker: So the Phoenix decision, played a key role in the desegregation movement at the national level. Lincoln and Ragsdales played a role in raising funds to help to bank roll this movement.

Lincoln Ragsdale Jr: We're coming to the main part of Encanto park.

Narrator: In addition to school desegregation, the Ragsdales worked tirelessly to initiate the desegregation of residential areas starting with the Palmcroft Encanto district.

Lincoln Ragsdale Jr: The only people who had access to live here were white people, no blacks or Hispanics.

Herbert Ely: The Ragsdales really integrated, were the pioneers of integrating housing.

Matthew Whitaker: Eleanor was clever. One of the first things she did after she stopped teaching was to get a real estate license.

Narrator: In 1953, Eleanor Ragsdale used her real estate license to purchase a house for a family in an all-White neighborhood. And in doing so, initiated a residential desegregation movement.

Lincoln Ragsdale Jr: There was where I grew up. 1606 W thomas
Lincoln Ragsdale Jr: There were no public accommodations in the neighborhood. You couldn't use the bathroom at the gas station down the street.

Matthew Whitaker: they were terrorized when they moved in to the home. They were greeted with the "N" word on the side of their house. The purchase of that first house in a white neighborhood was a declaration of dignity and possibility. It was a statement, we can do this too. And you have to deal with it.

Narrator: Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale spent their lives fighting for the dignity and possibility of civil rights. Their efforts in the southwest played an enduring role in the larger American civil rights story.

Herbert Ely I think the legacy of the Ragsdales is that they accomplished so much in the civil rights movement with dignity and a kindred spirit and not one full of animosity and hate. That's their biggest legacy.

Ted Simons: And Matthew, it might surprise some to hear Arizona, the first to desegregate schools?

Matthew Whitaker: Legally. And, in fact, there was a case in Tolleson involving Latino people that had been a watershed case and the Wilson district. So three areas involving blacks and Latinos in advance of cases at the national level.

Ted Simons: Alfredo, are there leaders like the Ragsdales around today?

Alfredo Gutierrez: I think there are, but let me just say something about the Ragsdales. They were extraordinary. And they also were the -- trying to reach beyond the African American communities. As Herb was saying, to the larger community and reaching out to the Hispanic community. Lincoln was one of my first supporters. And a major supporter the whole time I was in the state legislature and gave me a piece of advice I'll share with you. Briefly. I came to the house once and there was an expensive bottle of wine and he saw it and said, why don't you open it? And I said saving -- he said let me give you some advice. He was a mortician. Don't do that. I see people who save things all the time and he took the bottle and we opened it. [Laughter] He's an extraordinary man. And so glad just to see this movie. There are indeed. The battle lines have shifted. They've become economic and academic in the sense we have to educate our youngsters and keep public schools as a viable structure and so the battles have gone into education, gone into economics and gone into immigration. The whole battle of immigration. But the leadership is there, people are fighting. The other thing that's happened, these fights aren't exclusively today African American or -- or Hispanics. These are larger economic, cultural battles that include all of us. There's a cultural divide happening in this country, and that cultural divide is placing some of us, on one side, and others on the other, and frankly, it has to do with how we see America and how we see ourselves in America.

Ted Simons: Looking at it in an historical concept, do you see parallels between what we saw in the '60s and what's happening now?

Matthew Whitaker: I see a lot of similarities. Primarily fear and what it does to people and how people react. One of things that's going on in Arizona and nationally, is a fight to define whether an American is and the face of who an American is changing and rapidly. Cultural practices are changing and becoming more diverse and that's scaring the daylights out of a lot of folks. There's a lot of subterfuge. They'll hide between specific issues when the real issue is that their sense of domination and sense of control over the conversation, the aesthetic, all of those things are slipping away. The bell has told and a lot of folks can't handle it.

Ted Simons: A lot of folks couldn't handle the idea of a holiday honoring Martin Luther King and we'll look back at Arizona's fight for an MLK holiday. Take a look
In video- Martin Luther King Jr: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

Narrator: A national effort to honor Martin Luther King Jr. began less than a week after he was assassinated in Memphis, April 4, 1968.It took 15 years for that part of the dream to become a reality. When president Ronald Reagan signed the federal legislation creating an holiday honoring him in November of 1983. Arizona lawmakers weren't ready to pass that particular holiday, so governor Bruce Babbitt took his own action.

Dr. Warren Stewart: He called me at my house on a Friday afternoon to my surprise and said, reverend, what do you think about me signing the Martin Luther King Jr holiday executive order in your pulpit on Sunday morning?

Narrator: For many in the church that day, it felt like a turning point.

Dr. Warren Stewart: On May 18th, 1986 in this pulpit, where I'm standing, Governor Babbitt signed the executive order.

Narrator: But Babbitt wouldn't be governor much longer. He was preparing for a presidential run and told holiday supporters to steel themselves for a lingering fight.

Dr. Warren Stewart: He said I'm signing this but I guarantee you there are people who do not want it to happen and you have to work for it. None of us thought it was going to be the work it turned out to be.

Evan Mecham: My predecessor in this office chose to assume authority and declare a paid state holiday to observe the birthday of Dr. King. The law clearly states only the legislature has that authority. As the authority for such an act and that authority cannot be usurped by executive order.

Narrator: Governor Evan Mecham made rescinding the order one of his first acts in office unleashing a firestorm of criticism and frustration from local and national figures from local and national levels including the reverend Jessie Jackson.

Announcer: Earlier today, Jackson criticized Governor Evan Mecham of Arizona for being a dream buster. In Phoenix, 15,000 people braved cold weather to petition the state legislature to make the date a state holiday in defiance of the governor.

Matthew Whitaker: I just remember being shocked and confused and angry. It was the first time in my life that I had seen what I considered to be such a blatant disregard for that which was important, not only to my family as people of African American descent but others interested in social justice.

Narrator: In a nationally televised intervention of tort sorts, former governor Babbitt tried to convince Mecham to change his mind and push the legislature to approve the King Holiday but Mecham was unmoved.

Governor Babbitt: I remember you standing up and saying I'm elected to lead. I'm a moral leader.

Evan Mecham: I am.

Governor Babbitt: I think this is an hour of moral decision.

Evan Mecham: You've created a firestorm for political purposes and through no fault of mine, I end up in the middle and I've solved it in a responsible way. The legislature can take whatever action they want. I'm going to be busy getting jobs for blacks and other --
Narrator: Mecham's statements referring to African Americans as pickaninnies didn't help to persuade people that it had nothing to do with racism. Across the nation many Americans now believed they knew something about Arizona besides it has hot weather. It was also a backwards place unfriendly to non-whites.

Dr. Warren Stewart: The boycott was started by Stevie Wonder, scheduled to appear in Tucson and when he found out that governor Mecham rescinded the holiday, he made a statement he would not come.
Narrator: Other entertainers followed suit as did many other groups. By May of 1987 the state lost 17 meetings scheduled for Phoenix, Tucson or Sedona, economists projected those meeting to bring in $5 million directly and millions more indirectly. But a state-approved holiday wasn't in the offing. A pair of competing referendum was defeated by voters in 1990. Some blamed it on the national football league threats.

The NFL today: The league is taking nothing for granted. Should the referendum be defeated, the NFL announced it will take back the Super Bowl awarded to Phoenix for 1993.

Narrator: But the efforts to bring a king holiday to Arizona didn't stop. And finally, November 1992, Arizona voters passed proposition 300. The Martin Luther King JR civil rights day would be commemorated on the third Monday in January. Arizona became the first state in the nation with a voter-approved king day.

Ted Simons: Alfredo, your memories of those days and again, do you see similarities to what's going on now?

Alfredo Gutierrez: Oh, absolutely. Governor Babbitt decided to run for president and he wanted to revolve this and as reverend steward said, I was the democratic leader in the senate and called us and said, will you sign this? And I was also leaving office and I said -- you know, whoa! This is going to get -- and it did. We never expected Evan Mecham to become governor. Frankly. No one did. But immediately when he became governor and rescinded it and declared a Sunday a Martin Luther King day and there were the two issues in this entire time. The state was gaining this incredible reputation across the country and world, primarily because of the Martin Luther King issue and because of governor Mecham's personality. His choice of words, clearly, clear offensive racial attitudes. The NFL was going to quit and -- and then the NBA was talking about not playing a game here and the governor said -- I don't recall the precise words, well, then I would advise people not to go to the games. Black people play the games but it's whites that go and see them and it's on into the night.
Ted Simons: The idea -- and there's a line of reasoning that says when you compare what happened then with what's going on now. What happened then was a coalition, coalescing, if you will, around a single issue -- get that holiday. What's happening now, especially with Latino issues, there's so many angles, whether it's a employer sanctions law or S.B. 1070 or just the overall tenor of the debate. Is that a valid argument do you think?

Matthew Whitaker: I think there's some truth to it. Again, if it's -- if it's a measure, a holiday, it's one thing. People even back then said -- a lot of folks erroneously thought it was a black holiday. Which wasn't the case at that particular point. But this issue it's so wide but in some ways it's not. Because at the end the day, we're talking about social justice, equal access, talking about affording people certain levels of dignity in our society and not targeting people by virtue of their surname and pigmentation for negative acts and ostracizing. In that case, it's no different at all.
Ted Simons: Interesting. Alfredo, on this day, what should people take from this holiday?

Alfredo Gutierrez: Justice. Justice. That's what the holiday is about. That’s what life Is about. That's what the controversy was about. When Martin Luther King holiday was proposed, there was a senator who was opposed and they said the reason he was opposed wasn't because it was a black holiday, it was because Martin Luther King opposed the Vietnam war. The Vietnam with a war was still a raw issue in America. Martin Luther King spoke out, said in retrospect, you know, so many other people wish they would have at that moment. It was an unjust war. This is about justice. The Hispanic issue is about justice, it has been going on since 1848. It's escalated every year and it's going to escalate into economic consequences for the state that are going to be unfortunate. Until the same thing happens. What ended the Martin Luther King controversy in Arizona, was that the business leadership and faith leadership of this state decided it had to stop. And created the atmosphere for the passage of that act and at some point, at some point, the business and faith community is going to come together and say the outrage that's going on at the legislature has to stop.

Ted Simons: Well --
Alfredo Gutierrez: And the same thing will occur.

Ted Simons: That’s going to have to do it for that. Gentleman great discussion, thanks for joining us. We appreciate it.

Both Matthew Whitaker, Alfredo Gutierrez: Thank you.


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