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The good fight

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Fred Battle graduated in 1962 from Chapel Hill's segregated Lincoln High, sat in movie-theater balconies, rode in the backs of buses and was refused service at whites-only lunch counters. Battle, 55, a lifelong Chapel Hill native, has experienced racism and discrimination firsthand, an experience to which few white people can relate.

"Most of the white people you talk to can't believe that racism still exists until they read it in the paper," Battle said.

Battle has also seen a lot of progress for African Americans, hard-fought gains that he doesn't want to see diminished. That's why he's excited about the Martin Luther King Coalition of Orange County, a group that is working to advance the cause of civil rights in a community that prides itself on progressive politics, but may be losing ground.

Like many communities across the country, the Orange County group took to the streets last week for an annual march honoring the slain civil rights leader's birthday. But, instead of offering only feel-good speeches about keeping King's dream alive, the Orange County activists plan to keep working year-round for the kind of lasting justice King advocated.

This year, the group announced its "Equal Access to Quality Education" campaign, an effort to stem the tide of losses African Americans and other people of color are experiencing in public education.

The issues may have changed, but the discrimination remains. Today, anti-affirmative action forces are making headway, UNC-Chapel Hill is falling short in the enrollment of students of color, African-American students are underachieving in the highly touted Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system and there's a noticeable increase in anti-Latino sentiments throughout the Triangle.

Battle, a father of four children, said the Martin Luther King Coalition is "more than a march, because we're talking about current problems. It's something that's going to be ongoing."

Today's problems "have a lot to do with economics" as opposed to blatant racism, Battle said. Lower-income families tend to account for greater numbers of lower-achieving children in public schools. Those children subsequently have a more difficult time getting into and paying for college. It's another part of discrimination most people of privilege don't understand, Battle said. Most lower-income families have both parents working--often two jobs each, reducing the time those parents can spend helping their children with educational needs. Many low-income families can't afford computers for today's high-tech educational culture.

"The powers that be," says Battle, "think that blacks and other minorities have overcome. That's not the case. We're still behind. It's still a challenge."

For more information on the work of the MLK Coalition, e-mail mlk@ncjustice.org.

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