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The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • Reflecting on Rights: MLK left enduring legacy

  • It's a quiet Thursday afternoon at the Richard Allen Cultural Center in Leavenworth, as director Phyllis Bass guides a visitor through the black museum's collection.There's a military jacket from Ret. Gen. Colin Powell, clippers used to cut heavyweight champion Jack Johnson's hair, tributes to the Buffalo Soldiers, and a ...
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  • It's a quiet Thursday afternoon at the Richard Allen Cultural Center in Leavenworth, as director Phyllis Bass guides a visitor through the black museum's collection. There's a military jacket from Ret. Gen. Colin Powell, clippers used to cut heavyweight champion Jack Johnson's hair, tributes to the Buffalo Soldiers, and a collection of Black Dignity photographs, among numerous other items. Off to a corner, however, there are photographs of a different nature. They are images, some of them local, of the Ku Klux Klan, of blacks portrayed in negative stereotypes, and of black oppression. There's also a photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., struggling through the Civil Rights movement. "Martin Luther King said, 'Enough is enough,'" Bass said. "'If I have to lay down my life, I'm going to stop it,' and he did." Bass, 84, helped found the Cultural Center in 1992, across the street from the historic Bethel AME Church, once a part of the Underground Railroad. The center and museum, according to richardallenculturalcenter.info, was created to ensure the "rich heritage of African-Americans and their profound effect on American society would not be lost." "Together," the website states, "we can fulfill our motto: Unity: For the Love of All People." But, long before Bass would help found the local center and promote its mission, she was one of many African-Americans subject to racism and inequality. Then came Dr. King, she said. "When the Civil Rights Movement started, that was the greatest thing that ever happened in my life," she said. "Because then, we could go with dignity any place we wanted to go, because of what Martin Luther King did. "A lot of the young people today don't realize how tough it was." Before Dr. King, Bass said she experienced the overt hostility and inequalities of the time. Being refused service at restaurants, or made to wait by the backdoor; being restricted in school clubs or organizations; being called the N-word. Dr. King was an inspiration and instrument of much-needed social change, Bass said. "My eyes came open to the truth," she said. "That we are somebody. "To be able to teach children today, 'You can be anything, it's all up to you. Ask yourself, who am I, what will I be?' Let no man define you, you define you by the good works you do and all the different things you do to succeed in life. "I believe that with all my heart." But, if MLK's emergence in the Civil Rights Movement was among the best things to happen in her lifetime, Bass said his assassination in April 1968 was among the worst. "Indeed it was," she said. "I can remember in the streets of Kansas City, and even into my hometown (Iola), people were so angry they would just do anything, because they were trying to work out a solution, but there was no way they could get it done." Center Executive Director Edna Wagner said MLK was also influential for her, though perhaps less directly than he was for Bass. "For me, it opened my eyes to how much he did to make our nation of people become one family instead of a (divided) family," she said. "It gave me motivation to know that … I can be whatever person I choose to be, that many doors are open for us, we just need to know how to go through them. "He was enlightenment. When we thought we didn't have any rights, we had rights, and those rights became more visible as he talked about them." Bass said she believes race relations are better today, though racism still exists, just beneath the surface. "It's a lot better than it was," she said. "There are still some things that need to be done. I know hiring practices and promotions, many times they're not always what they should be. "There's a subtle prejudice now." At the end of Thursday's short tour, Bass spoke about a room on the center's ground floor, where a year-round tutoring program takes place for students who need academic assistance. The Cultural Center has helped more than 350 students through the program, and Bass is careful to note tutoring is available to anyone. Color, she said, isn't a factor. "God didn't make junk when he made you," she said. "That's what I tell anybody. White or black, it doesn't matter."
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