There are a number of community celebrations planned across Iowa today to observe Martin Luther King Junior Day. The observance honors the civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968. State representative Ako Abdul-Samad says he was a high school student in the 1960’s inspired by King to lobby the Des Moines School District for change. He says the top issue was a stronger teacher union, and Abdul-Samad says they also wanted African-American history taught.
Abdul-Samad and his fellow students asked the school board to close the schools on the day King was assassinated to avoid an outbreak of violence. When school officials refused, the students staged a walk-out. Abdul-Samad was elected to the Des Moines board more than 30 years later, and in November was elected to the Iowa House.
Abdul-Samad is one of the record number of minorities in the Iowa Legislature this year, but he says his race was not a factor in the election. He says it’s not an African-American district, as there are people of several nationalities living in the district. Abdul-Samad says he got 63-percent of the vote, “So I think they said ‘an individual can represent this community.”
Deborah Berry, a democrat from Waterloo, also says race wasn’t a factor in her election. Berry says it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, “it’s who you trust, who will represent your interest.” Representative Helen Miller, a democrat from Fort Dodge, was elected in 2002, and says the issue of race only came up once during her campaign.
Miller says at the time someone suggested she not put her picture on her cards, and that was the first time race was an issue. Miller says that was the first time she’d encountered an issue of race in her town and decided to say “No.” Miller says she wouldn’t have voted for herself if the material didn’t have her picture on it. There are now four African-Americans and one Indian-American serving in the Iowa House.