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Civil Rights Awards Presented Shortly After U.S. Capitol Insurrection

African American Museum of Iowa
Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated more than 50 years ago. Former NAACP regional director Kam Middlebrooks received the award in his honor for "promoting peace, justice and opportunity.”

Martin Luther King Jr. Day during a pandemic means lots of virtual celebrations. And these celebrations come at a tumultuous time in U.S. history.

The holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader comes less than two weeks after the insurrection by pro-Trump extremists at the U.S. Capitol.

And Kam Middlebrooks hopes people will use the holiday as an opportunity to pause and think. He’s the former regional director for the NAACP and is the recipient of this year's “Make a Difference Award” from the YMCA in honor of Dr. King.

“It's almost convenient that MLK Day is coming up in between all of this. For everything that Dr. King stood for. A coalition builder, somebody that brought together, not just black folks, but white folks, allies, brown, anything you want to call it," Middlebrooks said.

Middlebrooks currently serves as the chair of the Des Moines Civil Human Rights Commission: "The biggest thing I focused on is how can we change policies at the city, state and federal level to make a more equitable society?"

He participated in leading an initiative called "Bridging the Gap," which encouraged members of the community to speak their minds about how the Des Moines area can improve. Many, he said, brought up concerns about relationships with law enforcement.

Middlebrooks said through that process, the commission put together a list of 13 policy recommendations for the city council.

"And we're happy to report that all 13 of those recommendations are either being worked on or have already passed, and become either a policy of the city, or formalized into an ordinance," he said.

Those recommendations included more equitable access to housing, education and ultimately led to a new ordinance that helps prevent against racial profiling by law enforcement. Middlebrooks hopes that ordinance will soon become state law in this upcoming legislative session.

Middlebrooks discussed all of these topics at a virtual panel for the YMCA's 8th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast. Other honorees include Odell McGhee, senior associate district court judge (Legacy Award) and East High School student Lyric Sellers (Make a Difference Youth Award).

"One thing that Dr. King always talked about is the idea of redemption. And the idea that our oppressors, or folks that are in positions that oppress, you know, it's not necessarily them as an individual that we have to have a problem with, we truly have to have a problem with the policies that are in place," Middlebrooks explained. "When I think about some of the systemic issues that we face as a community, they're not just Black problems, they're not just brown problems. They're American problems."

But, he said he is sad about what happened at the U.S. Capitol this month.

"To be honest, I have a lot of fear about what can or will happen here in the future," Middlebrooks said. "But I think this really causes our communities, you know, to take a pause and to take a time to really reflect on who we are and who we truly want to be.”

Middlebrooks said he hopes Iowa can become a progressive leader again, and that people will continue King’s legacy by serving to better their community not just on the holiday, but every day.

Kassidy was a reporter based in Des Moines