Although significant civil rights progress has occurred since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel 50 years ago this week, national and local church leaders – including Rev. Kevin U. Stephens, Sr., M.D., J.D., former director of the New Orleans Health Department and current pastor of Christian Unity Baptist Church – believe that much work remains unfinished.
‘I can see a tremendous difference in the lives of African-Americans here in New Orleans in the delivery of quality health care, better schools, higher paying jobs, and the election of African-American officials including mayors and members of the City Council,” said Stephens who became pastor at Christian Unity in 2017. Stephens says the struggle for equality and economic equity began with Cain and Abel – the first two sons of Adam and Eve – and will continue.
A licensed OB/GYN with thirty years of experience, Stephens, born in Gonzales, first came to New Orleans to attend LSU medical school and later Tulane Law School. He chose medicine because he wanted to be a healer. He became a lawyer to better understand how policy is created. He was “called” to the ministry to help people reach their full potential through self actualization.
Like Dr. King, Stephens believes that everyone must develop a moral outlook. “Getting in touch with one’s inner spirituality is pivotal to building self esteem. “A motivated person is a person who can take advantage of opportunities and succeed in life while also looking beyond him or herself to help achieve the greater good,” Stephens explained. “Dr. King was willing to take the risks necessary to reach that goal – like going to Memphis to support sanitation workers when his associates advised against it.”
Stephens says racism, sexism and classism have existed for thousands of years. He cited the Old Testament passage, Exodus 8:1, in which God commands Moses to demand the release of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. All religions have the same basic tenets – that there is a higher power – and that each person must use self discipline to control his or her humanistic innate feelings. Not controlling those feelings often leads to greed, avarice, conflict and criminal behavior.
Dr. King inspired many churches to develop programs in the community including job training, affordable housing, food pantries and soup kitchens, and day care. At Watson Memorial Church, Rev. Pat Watson’s outreach to mothers of murdered children is one example of an important program that serves a community need.
Dr. King’s generation of leaders stressed non-violence and working across racial lines to build coalitions. Like many ethnic church leaders across America, Stephens considers addressing issues of social justice a priority. One of his Christian Unity’s main achievements is the 5-year-old multi-racial Justice & Beyond Coalition which is based at the church. “Through J&B, hundreds of people from various ethnic, professional and socio-economic backgrounds have come together to work on public policy issues including affirmative action, the living wage, housing, jobs, education, the environment and prisons,” he said.
Yet New Orleans still suffers from high incarceration levels, a lack of affordable housing, an exceedingly high unemployment rate for African-American males, a charter school system that does not want low-performing students, overall low wages, and a lack of advancement opportunities for tourism and service industry employees.
“The distribution of assets has always been a major problem,” said Stephens. “Everyone deserves a fair shot at equality, equity, and justice.” No one leader has been able to replace Dr. King. The challenge for the future is to inspire next generation leaders who will continue to embrace non-violence as they strive to find new solutions to age-old issues.
Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and former clients such as District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, City Council members Stacy Head and Jared Brossett, Foster Campbell, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. Her current clients include District B City Council candidate Seth Bloom and At-Large City Council candidate Helena Moreno.