Share this article

print logo

TOWNS THAT IGNORED KING DAY MAY NEED TO OBSERVE IT THE MOST

WHEN FRANK MESIAH heard that local governments in some suburban Buffalo communities remained open on Martin Luther King Day, the NAACP leader started thinking about Cynthia Wiggins.

He thought about how Cheektowaga never objected to Walden Galleria's decision to ban buses -- particularly buses from the inner city -- on the mall property.

He thought about Ms. Wiggins being struck and killed two years ago after a bus dropped her off near a busy highway, which she had to cross to get to her job at the mall.

And he wondered out loud if the mentality that allows a town to sit quietly by all those years while the mall did its best to keep blacks away is the same mentality that allows a town hall to remain open on a day honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

"Knowing what happened with the Galleria Mall," Mesiah said, "you'd think the town would like to recognize Dr. King. I figured they would jump on it. The fact that they didn't leads one to question their sincerity, and even their involvement in excluding African Americans at the mall."

"And they are adjacent to Buffalo," Mesiah continued. "With all that, you'd think they would have some sensitivity."

Cheektowaga played no role in the circumstances of Ms. Wiggins death, and town officials are sensitive to the contributions of King, Supervisor Dennis H. Gabryszak said. The town postponed its regular Monday night board meeting until Tuesday night in observance of the holiday, the supervisor said.

Town Hall being opened Monday, he said, had nothing to do with the Wiggins tragedy, the Galleria's long-standing bus ban, or the mall's eventual decision to overturn it, Gabryszak said.

"We don't control the buses or the bus stops," he said.

Town Hall being open, according to Gabryszak, is about money.

Town employees already get 14 paid holidays. Not only are they off for Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, but the days after those holidays as well. They even get a day off for their birthdays.

The only way the town can afford to close on Martin Luther King Day, Gabryszak said, is if the unions give up another holiday.

"In contract negotiations, the union requested Martin Luther King Day off as an additional holiday," Gabryszak said. "Our counter was to give it off in exchange for another. But the unions wanted an additional holiday. I can't agree to that. I don't want to give any more time off. We have a pretty generous holiday schedule as is."

Some towns, including Amherst, Orchard Park and Hamburg closed Monday, in some cases as a result of contract negotiations and in others because of a policy giving employees off on all federal holidays.

But in the towns that remained opened Monday -- including West Seneca and Tonawanda -- the story sounds similar to Cheektowaga's.

"Now, we may have 15 holidays. I don't want to add another day. I'm hopeful we can work out some kind of exchange (with the unions)," West Seneca Supervisor Paul Clark said.

"The town went to the unions and said we can't afford another holiday, do you want to exchange?" Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Carl Calabrese said. "Their decision was not to." The Town of Clarence added a new twist.

Union employees in Clarence once took a holiday on Martin Luther King Day, but they traded it away, Supervisor Daniel Herberger said.

"They came to the Town Board and wanted eyeglass care," Herberger said. "Someone said OK, we can look at that. But what are you going to give us back? They said you can have Martin Luther King Day back."

To Mesiah, it seems obvious there is little pressure in these communities to close in tribute to King since there are few blacks in town government or in the towns themselves.

But it's in these towns that King's message of tolerance, equality and brotherhood are so important, he said.

"If town fathers and mothers don't see it as important, that sends a message to their people," Mesiah said. "This is a disservice to younger people who will have to interact with the broader community."

Some town supervisors say they still hope to convince unions to give up another paid holiday in exchange for taking Martin Luther King Day.

Maybe next year, they said.

And maybe in memory of Cynthia Wiggins, whose death at age 17 has already brought buses to the Galleria Mall, and could now bring further tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

There are no comments - be the first to comment