The New Racism

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Here in Arizona, people are on the lookout for racism. The state's got a reputation.

In 1969, Arizona lawmakers opposed legislation to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s life. There were questions about King's ties to communism, questions about an extramarital affair. King's proponents said look to the principles he espoused, not the life he led.

Dr. King was not given a holiday in 1969, and an effort in the 1970s to honor him was denied as well.

In 1986, by then-governor Bruce Babbitt's executive order, Arizona finally got an MLK day. But Babbitt left office to run for president. The following year, Ev Mecham, who once referred to black children as "pickaninnies," rescinded the executive order in his first act as governor. In the years that followed, black entertainers told their audiences not to spend vacation dollars in this state. In 1992, Public Enemy released its music video "By the Time I Get to Arizona," which showed, among other things, the car-bombing of a governor for refusing to honor Dr. King.

Later that year, the National Football League got involved. The commissioner made a demand of the state: Either honor Dr. King with a holiday or we'll find somewhere else to play the Super Bowl in 1996. Arizona voters finally approved MLK Day.

Seven years later, a new high school opened in Goodyear. That fall, a black nuclear engineer named Ira Miles decided to make a career change, and took a job as a permanent substitute teacher at Millennium. As far as Miles is concerned, Arizona might have an MLK holiday now, but that doesn't mean that the state is free of racism.

He hasn't worked there in almost four years, but ask Miles about Millennium High now, and he'll talk for more than two hours.

According to Miles, in the fall of 1999, several black students tried out for Millennium's first cheerleading squad. None made the team. (About 7 percent of the school's population is African-American.) Despondent, the girls turned to Miles.

They told him they needed an outlet, a way to express themselves. After the meeting, Miles found Cloyce Lamb, a counselor at the school, and one of the few other black faculty members. Together, they decided something needed to happen. So they formed an extracurricular club called C.H.A.K.A., which stood for Cradle of History and Knowledge Association.

The name pleased Miles because it was distinct, yet didn't emphasize a race or ethnicity. After all, he says, "I'm not Black Miles. I'm Ira Miles."

Although the name didn't reflect it directly, the club's main purpose was to honor the Black Experience, teach it and proclaim it to the masses, yet not limit its membership to blacks.

In the beginning, C.H.A.K.A. flourished. Members volunteered, got good grades, worked in the community, attended conferences where African-American issues were discussed, and, in the spring of 2000, they put on a talent show.

Miles, Lamb and C.H.A.K.A. called it "Showtime at Millennium," and planned it for months. But because there were so many acts and so much hype, they couldn't hold it at Millennium. They held it at Agua Fria High School instead, where the auditorium was bigger.

And the place was packed. It surpassed the 750-seat capacity.

For three hours, students sang R&B, and played the trumpet and the saxophone. A punk rock band and a classically trained pianist performed. There were salsa dancers and hip-hop dancers and jazz dancers. Basically, anyone willing to show off a talent -- regardless of color -- got on the stage.

Miles was thrilled, but one thing disappointed him. Only one administrator from Millennium was in the audience, he says.

At the end of the year, Ira Miles was told he'd have to find work elsewhere. The school could no longer afford to pay for a permanent sub. He stayed involved with C.H.A.K.A. the next year, though he now subbed at Agua Fria High School. Cloyce Lamb was C.H.A.K.A.'s sole sponsor.

A few things happened over the next two school years. Millennium reinstated its permanent sub position in the spring of 2001. Miles was not asked to reapply.

In 2001 and 2002, C.H.A.K.A. did not put on a talent show. Some blame the students, others the administration, but one thing is clear: The club was falling apart.

By the fall of 2002, leading C.H.A.K.A. had become a hassle, Lamb says, looking back. The kids were irresponsible. Lamb had two sons playing baseball, one in high school, the other in college. If the group wasn't doing its work, he'd rather watch his sons play ball.

"We were always kind of spinning our wheels," Lamb recalls. "We weren't going forward. If I' m going to volunteer my time, I want to get progress out of the group. And we really weren't that productive."

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Paul Kix