Addressing a crowd of more than 900 people from all walks of life, Oregon's new attorney general asked the crowd a favor: stand behind him in re-creating the Civil Rights Enforcement Unit.
Immediately, the crowd that had been sitting still, hanging on every word of John Kroger, now picked up the petitions distributed on every table to sign and pass around. Kroger said there is no way of enforcing civil rights laws if there isn't enough funding to take those cases to court – funding that was stripped during Ronald Reagan's presidency.
"It will be small, god knows we don' t have much money," he said. "But it will be powerful. It will be prepared to go to court at a moments notice to ensure in this new dawn we live up to the highest ideals of our nation.
Introduced by City Commissioner Nick Fish, Kroger became the 23rd keynote speaker at The Skanner's Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast.
"If you're a polluter in the state of Oregon, watch out," he said. "If you're preying on the elderly or perpetrating mortgage fraud on members of our community, watch out. If you're a corrupt public official, watch out."
Kroger said he knew of no better place to begin the civil rights enforcement unit petition than at the breakfast – a diverse gathering of the African American community, government officials and business and nonprofit leaders. But he also said it wasn't going to be an easy road.
"I was called by a very important person, a person with a lot of power in this state," Kroger told the crowd. "(That person said) 'you have a lot on you plate … you need some easy wins, this civil rights thing is a lot to take on. No one's going to notice if you quietly walk away. You always hear how power is brought to bear to prevent change, I had that power in my ear and it was telling me to wait. … I think there are a lot of people in this room who would notice if I broke my promise."
Attendees, most of whom were dressed in their Sunday best, helped make the event at the Convention Center one that was not only memorable, but an event that helps remind us all of King's vision of community service. 500 pounds of donated food items were picked up by St. Andrew's Church; the Red Cross made appointments for blood donations and everyone was given meal coupons from Sisters of the Road to pass out to the hungry and homeless.
Many in the community were honored during the event. Imani Muhammad, founder of the Youth Summit, received the John H. Jackson Award. Muhammad's Youth Summit is planned for Feb. 7 at PSU's Smith Hall. The Black United Fund of Oregon received The Drum Major for Justice Award, which was accepted by Adrienne Livingstone. Each award came with a cash prize of $500. Scholarship winners are listed below.
Honored also was 92-year-old Moreese Bickham, who was imprisoned for nearly 37 years at Louisiana's Angola Penitentiary. He spent much of that time on death row before the 1972 Supreme Court case that nullified most capital punishments.
Bickham was convicted of killing two police officers who, rumored to be members of the KKK, showed up at his door in the middle of the night on July 12, 1958. Bickham was shot in the stomach. He now works actively in the movement to abolish capital punishment.
The Skanner's publisher, Bernie Foster, invoked a story from a friend who told him that Martin Luther King Jr. Day was better than Christmas – she didn't need to spend money, she didn't need to dress up and she felt compelled to do something positive.
"That's what it's meant to be," he said. "That's why we do the blood drive, support the homeless shelter and food drive."
Kroger also called on the crowd to assist him in his work. Not only will be addressing the problem of racism through civil rights law enforcement, he also wants to create a drug treatment system in the state that will help reform the so-called war on drugs.
"As a narcotics prosecutor, I was a foot soldier in that war," he said. "And I'm here to tell you a simple fact: It has failed. … the war on drugs, at best, is a very costly stalemate. It has left too many dollars in places that are not our true priorities and too many people in jail. So when we think how we're going to go forward in this new dawn under President Obama, one thing we cannot leave out, one thing I believe passionately as attorney general, is that we have to fix our criminal justice system."
Kroger said he wants to live up to the promises he made in his political campaign.
"I don' t want to be one of the thousands of White politicians who talked a good game on civil rights and walked away when the game was over," he said.
The Skanner's 2009 23rd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast was a resounding success. Over 900 people filled the halls of the Oregon Convention Center for a rousing breakfast celebrating the life and legacy of the slain civil rights leader. Please click here to see a slideshow of pictures from the event.
Karl Acker from Grant High School. Sponsored by Safeway.
LaShay Brown of Rosemary Anderson High School. Sponsored by Aramark.
Nana Dickson of Howard University. Sponsored by Northwest Carpenter's Union.
Jonna Frater of Southern Oregon University. Sponsored by Oregon Lottery.
Asmeret Kiflezghi of Oregon State University. Sponsored by Oregon Lottery.
Marneet Lewis of Washington State University – Vancouver. Sponsored by Oregon Lottery.
Shikara Lowe of Jesuit High School. Sponsored by PP&L.
Shantel Monk of De La Salle North Catholic High School. Sponsored by Providence.
Arya Morman of Oregon State University. Sponsored by OHSU.
Chiara Parker of Rosemary Anderson. Sponsored by Wells Fargo.
Morgan Powell of Seattle University. Sponsored by The Skanner Foundation.
Duvar Retherford of Grambling State University. Sponsored by Fred Meyer.
Alexis Stevens of De La Salle North Catholic. Sponsored by Turner Construction.
Venasha Williams of Portland Community College. Sponsored by TriMet.
Yusuf Word of the University of Puget Sound. Sponsored by PDC.