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Local Activists Honored as King Holiday March Draws Hundreds

Jan. 15, 2007 — Hundreds of residents marched from United Shopping Plaza to the Island Center for Performing Arts Monday to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and pay tribute to several homegrown activists.
"No matter how far we've come we have a far way to go, and we have actually lost ground," said the keynote speaker, Delegate Donna M. Christensen.
"The '60s were important," Christensen said after the march. There are struggles around the world and in the Virgin Islands that need our attention, she said. Her colleagues on Capitol Hill are "confronting the challenges" of improving education and living conditions, as well as tackling poverty, she said. Nationally, Christensen said, evidence of "injustices" worldwide can be found in issues surrounding the genocide in Darfur, support for the new Haitian government and reconstruction in New Orleans.
Speaking on issues closer to home, Christensen emphasized the need for more home ownership and participation in Medicare and Medicaid on the same level as other U.S. citizens. V.I. soldiers are fighting for their country but residents cannot vote for president, she said. Finally, Christensen commented on racism in the Virgin Islands and called for "zero tolerance."
"We cannot be silent" on these issues, she said.
The day was dedicated to remembering the struggles of King, who was born on Jan. 15, 1929, and led the fight for civil rights in the 1960s. Monday was the federal holiday that marked the 78th anniversary of King's birth.
Gov. John deJongh Jr. joined the marchers on their trek and spoke at the rally. Marching in the rally gave him a chance to converse with other participants, he said. Expanding on the theme of his recent campaign, "Together We Can," deJongh said, "If we do come together and if we do put aside our differences, we can succeed."
We must ask ourselves the question, "Where are we and where are we going?" deJongh said. Virgin Islanders have to face the challenges plaguing our islands such as teen pregnancy, inadequate education and poverty, he said, pledging that these issues would "continue to be answered every day" in his administration.
The march and rally, organized every year by the Central Labor Council's (CLC) civil rights committee, was also a time to honor three local heroes who dedicated their lives to the community, were instrumental in labor unions and valued the youth as future leaders of the community.
The three local activists honored were Ralph T. Mandrew, CLC past president, who died Dec. 14; and Cpl. Sheila Middleton and Lt. Gregory A. Bennerson, who died within hours of each other from health-related ailments on June 13, 2006. Families of the three were presented with plaques by CLC members.
Past CLC President Cecil Benjamin lauded the three fallen heroes, urging others to "take it to the next level." "The civil rights movement and the labor movement have the same goal — economic and social justice for all of us," Benjamin said.
Also honored was George Flores, a retired labor leader and activist who has become an advocate for many community members. Organizers presented Flores with a crystal plaque designating him a "drum major for justice."
"This award is not mine," Flores said as he accepted the honor. "It belongs to my people in the labor movement."
Senate President Usie R. Richards delivered a charge to the audience not only to quote King with his words, but to emulate him with their actions. "Don't be afraid to challenge the wrong," he said, urging listeners to take a stand even for issues that may be unpopular.
The audience was treated to a rare solo performance by Ronnie Benjamin Jr. of Midnight Band, which is slated to go on a world tour beginning Friday in Brazil. Benjamin sent a message to the youth. "Education is what is going to bring you freedom," he said, noting that education can be found not only in the classroom but also in the community and from elders. Then he launched into one of his band's popular songs, "New Life."
Also speaking was Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville, chair of the senate Labor Committee. The master and mistress of ceremonies were Jonathan James and Vivian James.
The marchers totaled more than 300 and included local union members, fraternities, sororities, politicians and school children carrying signs, accompanied by marching drummers.
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