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Government & Politics

Akron Legislator Reflects on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Where the Civil Rights Movement Stands

photo of Emilia Sykes
State Rep. Emilia Sykes (D-Akron) is this year's speaker for the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lecture series at the Akron-Summit County Public Library. The series began in 1985 with civil rights leader and Georgia State Sen. Julian Bond.

We recognize the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. on Monday. Akron legislator Emilia Sykes recalled Dr. King’s work as she delivered a lecture Sunday at the Akron Library in his honor.

Sykes is the minority leader in the Ohio House. She talked about some of the issues she touched on in her speech—job training, transportation, and infant mortality—and why those are civil rights issues.

In discussing her work with last year’s transportation budget, she pointed to the support for public transit, which could be seen as a job creator. “When we can make people’s lives easier -- so they can take care of their families -- these things are inter-related.”

Sykes also touched on what she feels is the racial component of infant mortality.

“Part of what we’re pushing for is creating more culturally competent healthcare. So when women do access these services, there’s someone on the other side who understands their struggle and is going to talk to them in a way that makes them want to come back.”

Sykes opened her speech by quoting Dr. King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” She later read her own letter to the Statehouse’s security chief, asking why she was being frequently stopped and searched on the way to her office. She says she’s found other parallels in Dr. King’s work and what’s happening in America today.

"Dr. King said, ‘injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane.’ As I think about the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act, and that people won’t have access to healthcare because they have pre-existing conditions – it is shocking and it is inhumane. I do believe healthcare is a right; it is not a privilege for those who have the means to pay for it."

Between now and Martin Luther King Day next year, she has high hopes for what will happen in the Statehouse and with this fall’s election, and how they could change or – in her opinion – advance civil rights.

“I hope we have more people in power and positions of leadership who look like Dr. King and like me. Who can share our experiences from a place of vulnerability and realness and authenticity. Because often, if you haven’t walked in somebody’s shoes, you can’t quite articulate them in the same kind of way.

“We’ve had some great allies who are not black – or who are not women – who have been advancing LGBT rights, disability rights, women’s rights, [and] the rights of immigrants. It means something when you have the representation of those communities in bodies that make decisions.

“I hope that this next election brings forth more diversity – more diversity of thought and ideas – and a way of life that is much more connected and humane and dignified than what we’ve seen -- especially at the highest levels of elected office in this country.”

State Rep. Emilia Sykes’ entire Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lecture from the Akron-Summit County Public Library is available below.

State Rep. Emilia Sykes' speech

Martin Luther King, Jr. Lecture Speakers:

1985: Julian Bond, Georgia State Senator

1986: Dr. Mary Frances Berry, U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner

1987: Lerone Bennett, Senior Editor, Ebony Magazine

1988: Nikki Giovanni, Poet

1989: Cicely Tyson, Actress

1990: Ray Nunn, ABC News

1991: Derrick A. Bell, Jr. Harvard University Law School

1992: Barbara J. Fields, Historian on PBS Series “The Civil War”/Professor, Columbia University Law School

1993: Vernon Odom, Retired Executive Director/Akron Community Service and Urban League

1994: The Honorable Alan C. Page, Associate Judge/Minnesota Supreme Court

1995: MaryAnn B. Coffey

1996: Tony Brown, Journalist

1997: Loretta Long, Actress

2005: Barry C. Black, Rear Admiral/U.S. Senate Chaplain

2006: Howard Dodson, Ph.D. Chief of the Schomburg Center/for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library

2007: Ozell Sutton, Ph.D./Civil Rights Veteran, recipient of the NAACP Medallion of Freedom

2008: Herman Boone, Legendary football coach/Real life subject of film, “Remember the Titans”

2009: Minnijean Brown Trickey, Civil Rights Crusader and Member of the Little Rock Nine

2010: The Honorable James R. Williams, Retired Judge, Summit County Court of Common Pleas/Former National President – Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.

2011: Andre Thornton, Entrepreneur and former Cleveland Indians Baseball Player

2012: Darrin DeWitt Henson, Actor, Producer, Choreographer

2013: Dorothy O. Jackson, Retired Deputy Mayor, City of Akron and Civic Humanitarian

2014: William Bill Diggs, CEO, Alonzo Mourning Foundation, Miami FLA

2015: Panel Discussion

2016: Panel Discussion: Ohio at the Center
Panelists: Matthew J. Borges, Chairman, Ohio Republican Party; David Pepper, Chairman, Ohio Democratic Party; Bishop Joey Johnson, Founder and Senior Pastor, The House of the Lord; Micah Mitchell Hines, Former General Counsel and Assistant Chief of Staff, Office of the Governor of Minnesota; Moderator: Albert E. Fitzpatrick, Journalism Educator

2017: Wil Haygood, Journalist and Award-winning author, “The Butler”

2018: Coach Lenny Wilkens

2019: Carl Westmoreland, historian, National Underground Railroad Museum – Cancelled due to inclement weather

2020: Representative Emilia Strong Sykes, Ohio District 34 and House Minority Leader

(list courtesy Akron-Summit County Public Library)