Disinterest hurting blacks, Robbins says

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Civic disinterest among Vicksburg blacks since the death of Martin Luther King Jr. has diminished their political power, the keynote speaker at Vicksburg’s observance said.

Yolande Robbins, owner of Robbins Funeral Home in Vicksburg and director of Vicksburg’s African-American museum, addressed the 150 to 200 people who gathered Monday afternoon in City Auditorium in the city’s 17th annual event.

“We are wasting Martin’s triumph,” she said.

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The honor paid the slain civil rights leader, who was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968, on the one-day holiday is a small one, Robbins said.

“The question is, how should we honor him in all the days after this,” she said, adding that the most important thing for blacks to do is create a visible, vocal presence.

“No part of the black community is voting in large enough numbers to decide elections,” she said. “The lives of our black elderly are centered on their church and their checks. Their attitude is that God will take care of things. The lives of young blacks are so consumed by entertainment they have no interest in anything else. The middle-class, middle-age black voter votes because it is the politically correct thing to do,” she said.

Robbins’ speech was in a two-hour program that also included greetings from elected officials, commanders or their representatives of the Vicksburg and Warren County governments and the three local U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operations.

Robbins said black people make up over 60 percent of Vicksburg’s population but do not exercise proportional political power.

“We do not meet, we do not talk, we do not visit,” she said. “We don’t discuss things any more.

She described a hard-working but uneducated man who leads an uninformed life until age 65.

“A bevy of candidates surround him, but they never once meet with him to tell him what tort’ means or explain to him how the courts work when his child gets into trouble.”

Public debates over subjects that include affirmative action and foreign policy are important for blacks to take part in, Robbins said.

“We need to bring conversation back to our lives, but the volume’s too high, the music’s too loud,” she said. “We are missing out on important conversations that we desperately need to be part of.”

As war with Iraq seems likely, such conversations should include questions like what groups of people will share the burdens of fighting the war, whether foreign policy should be conducted by assassination, and whether affirmative action should be “part of reparations, not diversity.”

Robbins recalled the days of segregation in Vicksburg, and the first meal she ate in an integrated restaurant, when she was 25 years old.

“Martin did that for me,” she said. “He changed my life.”

Also included in the celebration was another performance by Nathaniel Williams and The Mighty Train of Gospel, the mainly youth choir that is some 30 strong this year.

“They’ve been stopping at this depot for at least the past 10 years,” said the Rev. James O. Bowman, the president of the Vicksburg branch of the NAACP. In another musical selection, Grove Street Baptist Church choir member Jannifer Banks sang “Precious Lord.”

Special tribute was also paid at the celebration to Eddie Thomas, Vicksburg civil rights activist and barber who died since the last Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“He was another peaceful warrior,” Bowman said, adding that Thomas was a charter member of the city committee for the annual holiday celebration.