When George McKenna left New Orleans and accepted a teaching job in the Los Angeles Unified School District in the early 1960s, he thought he also left behind the prejudice and bigotry, separation and segregation of the deep South. The young educator was wrong.

Moreover, as he told more than 300 people at the 22nd Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast on Jan. 16, some of these vestiges of racism still exist today — not only here in Southern California, but across American society. Proof? All you had to do was watch the presidential primary debates and listen to the candidates’ brazen messages of division, exclusion and fear. 

“I came to California and thought I had come from segregation and separation, and found out there was still some of it here,” he said. “And so as 50 years have gone by, I still see the segregation and bigotry. And the focus on fear. And the separation of us from other people. And the disrespect and divisiveness. It’s still here.

“Why else would somebody like Donald Trump even exist?” he asked, drawing more moans than laughs. “He did not create a following. They’re already here. They’re still here.”

“Right, right!” a woman called out. “That’s right.”

“And they still believe that they have a place that doesn’t belong to us, that our place must be subordinate. It is so unfortunate. When I was younger, I said, ‘One day we’re gonna overcome this because we had the Civil Rights Movement and we can integrate,’” McKenna went on.

Denzel Washington portrayed the Louisianan in the 1986 TV movie “The George McKenna Story,” which chronicled how the former principal turned around George Washington High School here in L.A.

The retired educator, now a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District board of education, said legal integration happened, but serious remnants remain. A good insightful read was Michelle Alexander’s telling 2010 book “The New Jim Crow” about the mass incarceration of young black men in the United States today. Coming out of prison, being ex-cons and felons, they can’t even get a steady minimum-wage job with their criminal records. So racial discrimination, in short, is alive and well — half a century after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The slain civil rights leader was truly prophetic both in his dream and, especially, in famously pointing out that he may not be alive when the dream becomes reality, said McKenna.

“We haven’t gotten there yet,” he said. “We keep trying. Maybe this is as far as we get. When I was younger, I thought they’d have this racist thing fixed. But if some people had a choice, they’d still put me in the back of the bus. If they had a choice, they’d put me in my place, which they consider their power to do.

“That’s why we have to not even act like we’re subordinate and not participate in our own repression. And when you don’t participate in your own repression, you do resist. So if the whip is on your back, you have to get up and take the whip out of the slave master’s hands: ‘I will resist you because you can’t get to the promised land unless you stop abusing me. You are losing your soul by mistreating me.’

“Now, that’s easy to say standing at a podium,” he acknowledged. “To do it is very difficult.”

Knowing looks and nods flashed at the round banquet tables.

What transforms society

The theme of the 2016 prayer breakfast — “The Dream …Where are We Now?” — reflected on current race relations. Sponsored by the African American Catholic Center for Evangelization, the event at the Proud Bird Restaurant near LAX honored two individuals.

Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell was recognized for 25 years of “outstanding pastoral leadership” of inner-city churches in South Los Angeles ministering mostly to minorities. As pastor of St. Francis X. Cabrini, Ascension, St. Eugene and St. Michael parishes, the now episcopal vicar of the San Gabriel Pastoral Region was praised for his grass-roots social justice activism.

Bishop O’Connell received a multi-colored quilt embedded with the words of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” And he reminded those gathered that these words were written by a slave trader named John Newton. Newton was transformed by the courage of the suffering in-bondage slaves, who were miraculously able to keep their hope alive.

“What you are doing also in our society,” he declared with an Irish brogue. “You have suffered so many ills, suffered so many ways. And yet you keep hope alive. And yet you also keep your faith in Jesus Christ strong. And remembering the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to return forgiveness and compassion even when you receive oppression and violence against you.

“And that is what transforms society. That’s what overcomes evil. That is what we have learned from Jesus Christ and the life of Dr. King. So we all owe you a great deal of gratitude. I owe you gratitude for what you have taught me in my life.”

Black lives today

Ivan J. Houston, former chairman and CEO of Golden State Mutual Life Insurance company, served in the only black infantry division to fly in Europe, and wrote with Gordon Cohn “Black Warriors: The Buffalo Soldiers of World War II,” published in 2009. He received the Drum Major Award as a person who epitomizes the example of Martin Luther King Jr. 

During his address, Houston reported how he had met Dr. King during the Watts riots, which irrupted Aug. 11-17, 1965. The civil rights leader had come to Los Angeles to help restore order and address root causes of the urban rebellion that claimed 34 lives.

“Now that was 50 years ago,” he said. “And after tremendous progress in race relations, we still seem to be confronting some of those same issues. Dr. King is my hero. Because it took his courage and his Christian love facing evil and hatred to finally bring about changes in our country. These changes did not occur until two decades after World War II.”

Houston, 90, then shared his memories of being a 19-year-old member of the 92nd Infantry Division of the U.S. Fifth Army, which liberated cities, towns and villages in northern Italy in the late summer of 1944.   

In an interview with The Tidings, the retired insurance executive noted that the U.S. was late in abolishing slavery compared to other nations. While France banned the practice in 1818 and the British Empire in 1834, our Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t issued until 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln. He called slavery the “original problem,” followed by a century of harsh Jim Crow laws and systemic bigotry.

“Black lives have been and are still influenced by what happened during the time of slavery and the 100 years after that. No doubt about that,” he said. “Every now and then it rears its head. It’s interesting that the same police issues that brought about the Watts riots — I still remember the name, Marquette Frye [the black motorist arrested for drunk driving by a white California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer] — still seem to be present between many young black men and the police.

“In other areas, you know, there has been so much progress made in race relations. I mean, I’ve been around for a long time, so I’ve seen tremendous progress. But we still seem to have those issues and, hopefully, we will be able to get beyond them sooner or later.”

When asked how, Houston said it boiled down to better communication and understanding.

“To me, we have to know each other better,” he said. “I believe the whole idea of community policing is vital. L.A. has been moving in that direction, and I think has done a wonderful job compared to what it was. If you look back it was really bad, where now the police have begun to know the people, and the people to know the police.

“To me, that’s the only way,” he added. “They just have to understand each other. If we can work on that, that will certainly help things a whole lot.” And he paused. “But I don’t think we’re ever going to resolve the problems completely.”