by Reed Klein
You don’t have to wake up too early to hear some of the most influential human rights activists in the nation at Whatcom Community College’s Syre Center. The 12th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Conference started at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, the 16th, kicking off a day of human rights awareness and workshops.
The speakers and the content are different each year, but the community is never disappointed. During the commencing ceremony the crowd sang “We Shall Overcome,” the diverse voices resounding in unison against the high ceiling of the auditorium.
Cynthia Zaferatos, who has come every year, sees the conferences as vital to the future of the community. “Equality across human classes won’t happen until we are aware of what is preventing it,” she said.
There were many surprised faces when James Bible, the day’s first speaker and last year’s keynote, brought a 14-year-old boy on stage.
“The youngest person ever to be given a life sentence was one year younger than this young man. Barry Massey, at the ripe old age of 13 was given a life sentence right here in Washington State. He was still afraid of the dark.”
Bible, head of Seattle’s NAACP, emphasized the importance of the example his generation sets. “What our children do is ultimately what we teach.”
Gerald Hankerson, the keynote speaker, took the stage next. The crowd listened with rapt attention as he explained the story of his imprisonment sentence for life at the age of 18 and his perspective from inside the high walls of Walla Walla’s state prison.
“The guys next to me were saying that dying was an advantage,” recounted Hankerson. “All I had to look forward to was some forty years isolated from the world and then dying. I had to get busy dying or I had to get busy living.”
Hankerson devoted himself to being an outstanding model prisoner who eventually gained release in April of 2009. “Although I’m out, I am still not free,” Hankerson said. “Freedom means I’m able to get on a plane without being judged by my skin color. Freedom means I am not questioned about the neighborhood I am from. No matter what the laws are, inequality is still in many people’s hearts and minds.”
Emanuel Cabrera, a 17-year-old from Nooksack High School, was inspired and joined in the loud, standing ovation to Hankerson’s speech. “As a young teenager these kinds of things could change your life,” said Cabrera. “It’s good to be around positive influences. It’s better than being on the streets. I think if a lot of kids could see this then it could help their situation.”
That is exactly the idea, said Barbara Rofkar, Whatcom Human Rights Task Force co-chairman and a coordinator of the conference. “People often feel overwhelmed by their own lives. Sometimes getting out of your own world and seeing others will better put your situation in perspective and may inspire you to really make a difference,” she said.
Following Hankerson’s speech was the workshops and an opportunity to get free food from Great Harvest Bread Co. and a $5 lunch special on Thai food. People nibbled on bagels and chomped over plates of Thai noodles as they attended short seminars on everything from language barriers to the war on drugs. Dave Nichols, former Superior Judge for Whatcom Community and one of the workshop’s instructors, considered the conference as momentous.
“The major changes in history come from the young generation stoking the fire on important issues,” he said. “Awareness is always first.”
Jeff Shaw, North Carolina Justice Center’s Director of Communications and the afternoon’s keynote speaker, is hopeful for the results of these human rights conferences. “I think the new generation is working hard, and understands the issues we face better than my generation does,” he wrote in an e-mail before the conference. “I talk to younger people and they have an understanding of, say, critical issues on race and gender that’s far beyond what my understanding was when I started doing this work.” The turnout of Cabrera and numerous other teenagers is encouraging to activists, and always provides good incentive to come back next year with even more difficult issues.
To Shaw, “That’s cause for optimism, to be sure.”