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Pitt professor says struggle for change goes beyond one man

| Monday, Jan. 31, 2011

If the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. could speak to Americans today, he would not be impressed with the progress made toward equality and social justice for everyone, Vernell A. Lillie believes.

"If King were here today, he would probably say 'I think I want to measure you by your public schools, by your tax structures, by how many of your young people became doctors and lawyers,' "Lillie told about 60 people Sunday at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Service. "How many of your kids have failed in school• How many have graduated?"

Lillie, 79, a professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh and founder of the university's Kuntu Repertory Theatre, was keynote speaker for the service at Bethel A.M.E. Church. The event is sponsored by the Allegheny Valley Association of Churches and the Alle-Kiski NAACP chapter.

Speaking to a group that was racially diverse but predominantly black, Lillie said the civil rights struggle that King engaged in before his April 1968 assassination in Memphis cut across racial lines.

"What he wants you to remember is that poor whites and other ethnic groups are in the same boat as you are," she said.

"We are not alone," Lillie said. "Poor whites who depended on the mills, on the manufacturing jobs, they are in the same boat as we are. They are losing their houses just as we are."

Lillie said African-Americans have never believed in the "one man in history" theory -- that one man alone changes history. She said the struggle for change goes beyond one man, even the legendary civil rights leader.

"What are you going to do for the rest of your life?" Lillie challenged her audience.

The message resonated with her audience.

"What I got from it is that we all have an opportunity to overcome our difficulties and we have to be persistent to achieve what we want to achieve in life," said the Rev. LaVerne Embry of Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in New Kensington.

Dr. Daniel Fine of New Kensington said of the speech, " One thing is that history is made by everyone, not just our heroes. I think it was a broad vision of where we need to go."

"I've taken it to mean that we have to open our eyes to everything around us to make this world a better place to live and to make peace for each and every one of us," Lorraine Godson of New Kensington said.

"I think she wants everyone to have a dream to follow," said Ron Altany of Brackenridge. "I think she sees people losing sight of what Dr. King led us to and she wants everyone to understand that it's not over yet."

How to donate

The annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Service helps raise funds for a local scholarship fund that bears King's name. A free will offering at Sunday's service in Tarentum raised $1,095 for the fund.

Scholarships are awarded to senior applicants from Alle-Kiski high schools based on several criteria, including scholastic achievement, community involvement and financial need. The 2010 King Scholarship winners are:

• Charisse Skinner, Kiski Area High School

• Alex Kowalski, Valley High School

• Tyler McTigue, Deer Lakes High School

• Julia Frank, Plum Senior High School

• Raymond Geminetti, Leechburg Area High School

• Leslie Deutchman, Valley High School

To donate, mail a check to Allegheny Valley Association of Churches, 1913 Freeport Road, Natrona Heights, PA, 15065.

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