This year isn’t just another brick in the wall of social reformation for 12-year-old Jaeheon Kim. In his mind, it’s a huge leap forward.
The Lesher Junior High School student told a crowd of about 40 people in the CSU Library on Monday — the 23rd anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the day before the first black president of the U.S. will be sworn in — that his experience of American culture since he moved from South Korea with his parents hasn’t been an easy one.
His parents moved from city to city across the U.S. years before they came to Fort Collins, and Jaeheon experienced racism in each of them.
In Florida in third grade, classmates made fun of him for being Chinese, although he is Korean.
“Then I was called Chinese,” Jaeheon said. “Imitations of made-up Chinese words were slung at me. They didn’t even know where South Korea was. I was wounded. Nothing had changed.”
And it happened over and over, until Election Day last year when Americans overcame a 219-year-old racial barrier that has excluded ethnic minorities from the Oval Office since America was founded.
“Then Barack Obama became president of the United States,” Jaeheon said. “The dream had finally come true. The hope from Pandora’s Box escaped. America had changed.”
He was one of 12 Poudre Valley School District students who read essays about the holiday to the students and community members who gathered in the library before the annual MLK Day parade that snaked through Fort Collins Monday afternoon from Old Town Square to the Lory Student Center Ballroom.
This year’s holiday marked an historic benchmark in racial quality for the U.S., as it comes one day before Obama makes his inauguration speech.
Abigail McCeney, one of Jaeheon’s fellow classmates, read to the audience about her grandfather’s role in a 1960s federal investigation into voter registration practices in Alabama that uncovered voter registration officials quietly segregating services for white and black voters.
“In Alabama, the voting officials made long and difficult registration application forms that made it complicated for African Americans to register,” she said. “The voting officials would help fill in forms for white registrant who were illiterate, although they would not do this for African Americans in the same situation.”
Her grandfather, Jonathan Sutin, 70, of Albuquerque, N.M., worked as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice under Robert Kennedy’s tenure as attorney general and helped establish tighter voter registration rules.
Sutin said it’s important for college students to be educated about the history of oppression in the U.S. whether that education comes from a tenured professor in an ethnic studies course or from a middle school student who is passionate about equality.
“Education is by far one of the most important ways in which the people in the country can learn about the bad things,” he said. “The more they can engage in that memory — that remembrance –/the more they are the ones who assist in change. . The other part of the equation, of course, is the teachers.”
“We have to remember what happened back then. It was invidious. It was a malignant sore,” he told reporters earlier.
After the parade, which was led by CSU students and university officials, Interim President Tony Frank joined several community speakers, including Fort Collins Mayor Doug Hutchinson, in emphasizing the importance of bringing community awareness to ongoing issues of racism and bigotry in the U.S.
Development Editor Aaron Hedge can be reached at email@example.com.