By filmmaker Tod Lending
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. For many African-Americans it was a defining moment when their long-sought after civil rights were finally given a national voice; a turning point after which there could be no retreat. Dr King’s words at the march for 'jobs and justice' have served to inspire generations.
Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson is the first black woman to be elected mayor of Gary, Indiana. She believes that, were Dr King alive today, "he would continue in his efforts relative to economic equality, because he began to understand later in his life the relationship between economic achievement and racial equality".
Those sentiments are particularly relevant to Freeman-Wilson and the people of Gary. Driving through the city today is like taking a tour of a warzone. The stores along its main street, Broadway, are boarded up, burned out and abandoned. Take a detour and you will find row upon row of abandoned, boarded up houses - with the odd occupied home speckled between them. There are vacant lots, empty warehouses and crumbling churches in this predominantly African-American city, where crime rates are high and unemployment is at 30 to 40 percent.
But Freeman-Wilson is undeterred and committed to making the dramatic social and economic changes needed to save this city. Her spiritual and moral drive in the face of such overwhelming odds is a reminder of King's legacy. Today, she carries his torch.
In the 1930s, Gary, Indiana, like many cities in the Midwest, became a beacon to hundreds of thousands of black Americans who migrated north to seek jobs and escape the sometimes lethal racism and repression they faced in the south. Over a period of 30 years they filled the ranks at factories, steel mills and auto plants in the heart of the industrial belt that stretched from Pennsylvania to Michigan and beyond.
Well into the 1970s, there was a boon of economic opportunity that had never before been afforded to African-Americans. The US Steel Mill in Gary was at the crossroads of this northern migration. At its peak it employed 25,000 mill workers.
The city became a hallmark of African-American economic opportunity.
However, in the 1980s, all that changed. New cheaper steel imports, higher fuel costs and an abrupt decline in the US auto industry led to an implosion of US industrial might. Cities like Allentown, Pennsylvania, Scranton, Ohio, Flint, Michigan and, of course, Detroit, Michigan were all devastated.
Gary was not spared. And, for the past 20 years, it has struggled to navigate this new reality.
In 2012, Gary elected Freeman-Wilson as mayor. As a Harvard-educated African-American woman she brought with her a fresh perspective to meet a crushing need. Her first act was to seek out support from the state of Indiana through the authoring of an economic redevelopment bill for Gary, the first bill of its kind in 30 years. The bill is designed to support expansion of their airport, improve city services, bring updated emergency medical care to the local hospital and navigate a restoration of broader economic stability.
Our film follows the story of the passing of this important bill, the first step towards achieving the dream Freeman-Wilson has for her city, a dream that was inspired by a speech made 50 years ago by Dr King, a dream that lives on in places like Gary.
This episode of Witness can be seen from Monday, September 2 at the following times GMT: 2230; Tuesday: 0930; Wednesday: 0330; Thursday: 1630.
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