Despite a history full of trials and tribulations, African Americans want the same thing as any American: For their children and grandchildren to have access to a better life.
That was the message of the Rev. James D. Peters Jr., the speaker at the Hastings African American Awareness Committee’s 17th annual Black History Banquet Saturday afternoon at the Adams County Fairgrounds.
“Dedicate your life, no matter how young or old that you may be, to help somebody who is looking for a better tomorrow,” he said.
The 81-year-old Peters is a retired pastor for the New Hope Baptist Church in Denver and currently serves on the board of American Baptist Churches USA. He was a contemporary of the Martin Luther King Jr., and was recognized by King with the Southern Christian Leadership Conferences outstanding service award in 1966.
Beginning in 1959, Peters began taking part in civil rights marches.
He talked about historic marches, many of which he himself took part in, such as in Birmingham, Ala., in May and June 1963; the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, which included 250,000 people; and marches on March 7 and 9, 1965, from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala.
Marchers included people of various races and backgrounds. Peters recalled injures sustained by James Reed, a white Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, who was beaten with clubs at the March 9 march.
Selma’s public hospital refused to treat Reed. He was taken to Birmingham’s University Hospital two hours away and died two days later.
“Marching was not easy,” Peters said. “Some went to jail. Some faced fire hoses and dogs. Some faced cattle prods and angry mobs. But we still marched.”
African Americans have been a political football almost as long as the country has been in existence, Peters said. There were times when only Republicans stood for freedom, justice and equality and times when it was only Democrats who would attempt to pass civil rights legislation.
“Most often, though, in crowded meeting rooms, there have been bargains between leaders of both parties to leave us a long way from being full American citizens,” Peters said.
The Reconstruction period, following the Emancipation Proclamation, worked well for former slaves with hundreds of blacks elected to public office, Peters said.
That changed with the presidential election of 1876, which was so close it had to be decided by the U.S. Congress.
Rutherford B. Hays made an agreement with members of Congress from three southern states who provided the votes to elect Hays. The agreement called for removal of federal troops from the South, which stopped newly freed slaves from being able to vote.
The act led to the creation of Jim Crow laws and allowed for nearly 100 years of segregation, Peters said.
To make the future better, Peters suggested taking action such as creating scholarships and volunteering as a tutor to help children who otherwise wouldn’t be able to go to college.
He also suggested helping senior citizens.
In addition to Peters’ speech, three members of the Willie Harris Gospel Singers of Chicago performed a handful of songs.
The banquet ended with a buffet filled with a couple dozen dishes such as fried catfish, chicken, barbecue ribs, ham, turkey, cornbread dressing, macaroni and cheese, yams, red beans and rice, plus several different kinds of pie like sweet potato and buttermilk.
Before everyone was dismissed to eat, master of ceremonies Rick Wallace said everyone in the audience should feel a call to action.
“I think we’ve just been put on notice if we didn’t know before,” he said.
He said civil rights pioneers like Peters are not unlike members of the U.S. military and he thanked Peters for his service. He called Peters a “soldier of civil rights.”
“He is a person who sacrificed and put his life truly in harm’s way for the reason that I said we are all here today,” Wallace said.
He said the African American awareness baton needs to be passed and looking into the audience it appears there are the people to do it.
“I look out today and I see a lot of young people out here today,” he said. “For the first time I’m seeing more young people than old people and that’s very heartening.”