Civil Rights Fight Continues in Harrisburg

Civil Rights Fight Continues in Harrisburg
By Mary Klaus

When Michael Sand heard that Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, he cried.

“He was a personal hero of mine,” said Sand. “I was so sad and knew that it would be ten times harder to do the things he had wanted to do. I was incredibly distressed at all the riots in the major cities after his assassination. That put back his cause.”

King, a Baptist minister, was the leader and national spokesman of the civil rights movement from 1955 until his death. He had organized a march on Washington and marched in numerous protests to support poorly-treated African-Americans. He was shot to death while standing outside his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee.

The night before his death, King almost prophetically spoke about the difficult days ahead. He told people that he had seen the Promised Land.

“I may not get there with you,” he said. “But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.” Twenty four hours later, he was dead.

Sand, who has spent a lifetime both working with non-profit organizations and fighting for equality for all, said that King’s dream was to set up a “loving community with no war, no discrimination, and all of God’s people coming together.”

He said that this broad approach lead King to speak out against the Vietnam War for humanitarian reasons. As a result, Sand said, Civil Rights activists attacked King for being distracted with Vietnam instead of focusing on the rights of Blacks.

“Martin Luther King had a wider view of Civil Rights,” Sand said. “He included everyone. He believed we had to have voting rights. If he had lived, the world would have been a much better place.”

Sand said that the late John R. Lewis, a Civil Rights activist from Georgia who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1987 until his death in 2020, took up the mantle when King was killed.

Last year, nineteen states passed more than thirty-four laws many consider anti-voter because they purge voters from the rolls, have strict voter ID requirements, limit early voting options, or reduce the number of polling places in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods.

“Martin Luther King was for voting rights from the beginning,” Sand said. “We have to have voting rights in the country.”

Sand spoke against what he called “structural racism” which he said has existed in communities since the first slaves arrived in what is now the U.S. in 1619.

“There is no area of state government where blacks are not discriminated against,” he said. “Vestiges of slavery and discrimination continue in every single city in the country, every department.”

He has been involved in starting an Eliminating Structural Racism Task Force to identify and combat racism by changing systems.

“We are getting black and white citizens together to look at structural racism,” he said. “We are starting with looking at Harrisburg and beyond. There is discrimination not because people running the government and agencies are racists, but by the history and times we live in. This isn’t just a black problem. White lives also would be significantly improved if we had no structural racism.”

Sand mentioned some positive developments in the Harrisburg community.

“I’m working with the Martin Luther King Leadership Development Institute,” he said. “We’re now running our 10th program which teaches people how to be leaders.” The year-long program focuses on education, economic development, quality of life, racial opportunity, harmony, infrastructure, and leadership.

“Last year, we had to use virtual training,” he said. “We had people from all over the world and as far away as India.”

Another positive development has been the Freedom Seders, which he and Rabbi Carl Choper have helped facilitate and Beth El Temple has hosted.

A decade ago, The Rev. Dr. Earl Harris, then pastor of St. Paul’s Missionary Baptist Church, and Rabbi Eric Cytryn, then spiritual leader of Beth El Temple, saw the Freedom Seder as a way for the African-American and Jewish communities to strengthen alliances.

Now, the Seders are co-sponsored by the Interdenominational Ministers Conference, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, and more.

“We have two major groups of people who are opposed to slavery,” Sand said. “Jews have Passover, our celebration for freedom that reminds us that we were slaves in the land of Egypt. The black community discusses their own freedom after they were slaves. So, we have a Freedom Seder with a different theme each year.”

This year’s Freedom Seder is planned for April 7 at 6:30pm at Beth El Temple, with a theme of “Welcoming Refugees.”