Unity Breakfast speakers push for racial progress in Morgan County

By Ryne Turke on January 18, 2016 at 12:35pm

The 2016 Mayor’s Unity Breakfast featured a pair of keynote speakers involved with National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Hundreds of community members filled Hamilton’s in Jacksonville this morning for the annual event.

Gloria Helms-Williams, a 1985 Jacksonville High School graduate, was the first speaker introduced by Mayor Andy Ezard. Even though Helms-Williams works for Southeast High School in Springfield, she still has strong ties to the Jacksonville community.

Helms-Williams believes Jacksonville should be proud to be holding a remembrance of one of the greatest civil rights activists in history: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“It took 15 years to create a federal Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. We all need to step forward and continue to bring change for the good. There were many leaders that sacrificed their lives so we could vote, use public transportation and public restrooms.”

Helms-Williams researched some information on racial progress made across the nation.

“Illinois is among one of the worst. It ranks 32nd in racial progress and 42nd on racial integration. As a civil rights organization, it is important that the NAACP continue to fight for racial and economic equality. We need our churches, politicians, teachers and citizens to speak up and not be afraid to bring ideas for change. As they say, a closed mouth does not get fed.”

Eric Robinson, President of the Jacksonville NAACP, spoke about improving the political, educational, social and economic status in Illinois. Robinson broke down the history of progress made by African-Americans in Morgan County.

Robinson stated that Illinois College and MacMurray College were some of the earliest college’s in the state to open their doors to African-Americans.

“In post World War II era, the oldest alumni of Illinois College reported they never know a time where there were not negro students in attendance at Illinois College. Robert Curtis, from the class of 1956, was president of his senior class. Eugine Wells, from the class of 1963, was the president of the entire Illinois College student body.”

“MacMurray College admitted negro pupils for music instruction as early as the 1930s.”

Further research showed that District 117 employed three African American teachers in the 1960s. Robinson says over the years the legacy of equality in Jacksonville has lost its way.

“Despite our progress of past history, there are two African-American teachers in our school district, we can do better than that. There aren’t any African-Americans working for the post office, we can do better than that. As for our history of employing minorities in managerial positions around the city, we can do better than we are doing.”

Robinson also suggested a community collaboration to make sure students are ready for college and the work force after graduating high school.

Click below to hear audio from Helms-Williams and Robinson.