Black and white residents in Medford marked Martin Luther King Jr. Day by breaking bread and broaching the delicate subject that triggered violent clashes in the city in the late ’70s and early ’90s: race.
“Sometimes, if you’re talking about race or socioeconomics, people aren’t comfortable,” Diane McLeod, director of the city’s Human Rights Commission, told guests over lunch. “Well, none of it’s comfortable. But we still have to talk about it.”
About 60 Medford residents and public officials gathered at the West Medford Community Center Jan. 20 for the city’s second annual event honoring the birth of King, the civil rights leader who inspired millions.
“I think obviously we know there’s been great strides” in the city, Mayor Michael McGlynn told the gathering. “But we’re not foolish enough to think that everything is great.”
The McGlynn administration’s Human Rights Commission teamed up with the Mystic Valley area branch of the NAACP and the Peace and Justice Studies program at Tufts University to organize the luncheon and round-table discussions.
The gathering was part of a yearlong project called Tracing Our Faces , marking the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where King delivered his “I
Have a Dream” speech. The initiative, which calls for holding monthly gatherings to spur discussions on race in Medford, was launched in November and is funded in part with a state grant and matching gift from the Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery .
“This kind of conversation is essential if we’re to acknowledge and dispel myths about slavery and race that are holding us back from reaching understanding and lead to racial healing and justice today,” said executive director James DeWolf Perry in a phone interview from the Tracing Center’s headquarters in Watertown.
David Harris, a member of Medford’s Human Rights Commission, opened the program by reading an excerpt from King’s fourth and final book, ‘‘Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” Published in 1967 — the year before he was assassinated in Memphis
— King called for blacks and whites to “unite in order to fight poverty and create a new equality of opportunity.”
Attendees at the Medford event were then asked to huddle at tables and discuss one of three topics: “What does racism mean to you today?” “What does economic exploitation mean to you today?” and “What does ‘social betterment’ mean to you today?”
“If we’re going to make Medford and the world a better place, you have to ask yourself, ‘What are we going to do?’ ” said Dale Bryan, assistant director of Peace and Justice Studies at Tufts, who designed the gathering’s format.
The discussions — some of them an hour long — had residents talking, and sometimes cupping their ears to hear different points of view at the 8-foot-long tables.
At the conclusions, organizers asked participants to highlight their table’s discussion and share any recommendations.
“I think there was a great concern about not having a lot of minority teachers in the schools, and there weren’t role models for the younger people,” said Carolyn Rosen, a human service agency finance director and a 25-year resident of Medford.
Yasmeen Caban, 18, agreed. The college freshman at Rivier University in Nashua attended kindergarten through fourth grade in Medford, eventually graduating from Tewksbury Memorial High School when she moved to that community after her mother remarried. Caban said a lack of black role models in Medford schools appears to remain an issue.
“You don’t have anyone else to look up to, and so I kind of like that idea that there should be more black people in there,” she said of the schools, which have not had a black person serving on the School Committee since 1992.
It’s a criticism not unfamiliar to Loren Gomez, a school psychologist at Brooks Elementary, where she sits on the school’s diversity committee.
“It’s different now, but there still is racism . . . You see it when you’re working and living in it, you know? And I’d like to address that,” she said.
Caban’s grandfather, Medford native Mabray Andrews, 63, is the son of the first black person to be elected to the Medford School Committee, the late Madeleine Dugger Andrews, for whom one of the city’s middle schools is named (She was elected in 1963 and served four terms).
Andrews, a technical writer, attended the recent program and recalled that his nephew was embroiled in one of the conflicts. He said his hometown has made some strides in terms of race relations.
“This community has grown from what it was,” said Andrews. “They use to call us ‘their coloreds’ and I don’t hear that anymore.”
Agnes Opara, 55, sat at a table where the conversation focused on “What does economic exploitation mean to you today?” But the registered nurse who immigrated to Medford from eastern Nigeria 30 years ago said her leading concern is that Medford’s public office holders remain all-white.
“I don’t see a lot of people of color in the government and City Hall,” she said of Medford, where, according to the 2010 US Census, 9 percent of 56,000 residents are African-American.
Neil Osborne, a lawyer who is president of the Mystic Valley NAACP branch, said he ran unsuccessfully for Medford City Council last year, hoping to end a 32-year drought since a black person was elected to the governing body.
Osborne, 49, who was born in England and is of Jamaican descent, attended Medford High during the racial tension in 1977. Asked whether the city had progressed, he responded “It’s slowly getting there.”
“It’s such an old town, and old values are hard to die away,” he said. “So there’s a bit of friction between the new progressives coming in and the people who have been here a long time.”
In a phone interview after the luncheon, McGlynn said he recognized the lack of diversity in elected city offices. He said the city’s current citywide at-large voting system is to blame.
Asked if he would support — in principle — a city charter change to allow voters to elect city councilors by ward, McGlynn said yes.
“Would it help with diversity and neighborhood representation?” asked the 14-term mayor, who, after 27 years in office, is the longest serving mayor in the Commonwealth. “Absolutely!”