Two black mayors in Northwest Indiana — Karen Freeman-Wilson, of Gary, and Anthony Copeland, of East Chicago — say the legacy of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. has had an impact on their personal and political lives.
Copeland, 56, is the city's first black mayor and Freeman-Wilson, 51, is the state's first black female mayor. Both are inheriting leadership of cities with crumbling tax bases in addition to other economic and social ills.
The mayor of Gary said she intends to "borrow a few pages" from King's playbook to keep the city afloat. That includes making unpopular decisions in to improve conditions for residents and doing what is right for the greater good. That is the reason she said she was elected.
"Dr. King emphasized his desire to make difficult decisions even when they were unpopular. That is something I would certainly subscribe to," Freeman-Wilson said.
One of the largest lessons Copeland said he takes from King is that people should take pride in themselves and their communities.
"If you're gonna be a street sweeper, be the best street sweeper that you can be," Copeland said. " I think that's the essence of the man."
King was born today in 1929 in Atlanta and the holiday observance for him is Monday. He was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.
Copeland considers himself lucky for growing up in East Chicago's North Harbor since "he was blessed with riches" of ethnic diversity. He bristles a bit when referring to his political achievement in the city because it doesn't provide singular definition of him and his role as the city's leader. As in King's day, Copeland said more progress can be made in his city and in Northwest Indiana to reduce racial and ethnic tensions, but there are plenty of examples of people of different backgrounds working together.
Even with these differences, Freeman-Wilson said there are universal things people want, such as wanting to create good opportunities for children and safe and secure environments especially for seniors. Working toward these goals will help bring people together, she said.
Civil rights isn't a dead issue, and Freeman-Wilson insists that jobs is one of the most critical issues remaining in the region and the country. She also said one of the last places in society that still tends to be segregated are communities of faith.
For Indianapolis native Kevin Chavous, education is one of the most important civil rights issues remaining in communities, especially those in urban areas. The prominent attorney, author and national school reform leader was in his hometown Thursday to speak at a celebration honoring King at the Statehouse.
But before he was an education reform advocate, he served as a Washington, D.C., city councilman. Chavous said his father told him after being elected that 10 years from now, if everyone still cheers for you, that means you haven't done anything meaningful.
"You've got to have courage and you have to realize that if you want to be a change agent, you're going to make enemies," Chavous said.
Chavous recommended emerging leaders spend more time understanding the writings of King and other influential social leaders.
"Yeah he had a dream, but he was going to fight for that dream and he was going to stand up (against) the status quo. That is of critical importance for our leadership to (understand)," Chavous said.