By Dennis J. Freeman
Like many Americans, Dwayne and Maria Landry Ross embraced what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood fought and stood for; equality and fairness for every citizen in this country, equal opportunities in education and labor and the right to be treated like a human being. The couple’s American dream was King’s aspirations lived out.
They lived in a great neighborhood. Their children attended the school of their choice. The Ross family then made a horrifying discovery that reminded them that deeply-rooted racial ugliness remains an issue in this country.
In the wee hours of June 19, 2000, Dwayne and Maria Ross awakened to find their dream world shattered into many tiny, racial-tinged pieces when they looked out of their window to see a 7-foot cross burning on their Katy, Texas front lawn. Dwayne Ross’ first reaction was instinctive as he went into protective mode of his family.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Dwayne Ross said. “I really couldn’t believe it. My instant thought was, ‘Who did this? You want to hurt whoever did it. You want revenge. But there was no revenge to get because you didn’t know who did it.”
This was a life-changing moment for Dwayne Ross and his family. Anger and confusion occupied their thoughts. Sleepless nights became routine for the husband, wife and their two children. Their course of action came by way of the legal system, where five men were tried and found guilty of the crime.
All five received prison sentences, and the Ross family were even granted a monetary settlement worth millions of dollars. That victory was short-lived as an appeals court later reversed the judgment.
In an 11-year span, Dwayne, Maria and their son and daughter, have had to ride this emotional rollercoaster of playing this hate crime over and over in their minds. It’s been over a decade of suppressed rage, bewilderment and questions for the family.
“I look back today and it still hurts,” said Dwayne Ross. “It still hurts that this would happen to us. I was living the American dream. I was working, my wife was working. We lived in a beautiful home in the suburbs.
“We were just taking care of business… and then that happens. And it happened in an affluent neighborhood. The perpetrators were from the neighborhood. It just demoralizes you. I’m really confused. I can distinctly remember standing outside and seeing that my neighbors were dumfounded at what happened.”
Dr. King, the revered and iconic civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, fought against the type of bigotry, segregation and racial intimidation the Ross family endured with a non-negotiable stance of nonviolence. King didn’t believe in physical confrontation against the perpetrators of violence.
Instead, King went up against the wiles of the racist Jim Crow era with love. He reshaped the civil rights movement and led the fight to important legislative and judicial victories without striking a person. The passage of the Voting Rights Act came about of King’s willingness to negotiate peace instead of executing an eye for eye philosophy.
Hate begets hate. Violence begets violence. Love begets love. Instead of hating the five men who committed the crime, the Ross family has chosen to forgive them. Much like Dr. King would.
“Hatred combined with ignorance is the main reason the cross was burned,” Maria Ross said in a 2009 interview with the Compton Bulletin.
Still shaken from the vile display of racist intimidation, the couple was determined to not allow destruction and chaos rule their household.
Instead of sitting on their laurels and complaining about the wicked crime done to their family, Dwayne and Maria decided to make good on a concept that they had put on the back burner: create a flag that would symbolize peace, unity and equality for all mankind. King best represented all of those attributes, said Lori Ross.
“He was a great humanitarian,” she said. “He saw us as equal; he saw no color. It was about embracing every one’s differences and being educated about it. We can’t always agree on everything, but we can respect each other’s differences.”
Maria Ross saw a much bigger picture. She and her husband saw this as an opportunity to educate folks about King and his legacy. More importantly, the flag, which is licensed under Ross Flags and Design, LLC., would serve as an educational component to learn more about the iconic King and the history-rich civil rights movement.
The concept has taken on national importance with places of higher learning such as Howard University, Morehouse College, Florida A & M University flying the flag.
The NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks purchased enough flags to be flown in the district schools. School districts across the country, and institutions such as the King Center and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Ohio, are displaying the flag as well.
Los Angeles area-based education systems like the Inglewood School District and Compton Unified School District has adopted the flag.
Maria Ross also said she and her husband thought it would be a good idea to pay homage to honor the slain civil rights leader with the flag. But she also figured out that their concept could turn into something really big, given the worldwide influence King had before he was assassinated by a sniper’s bullet in 1963.
The flag would also inform today’s young people about their history, she said.
“I knew there was a void in the country,” Maria Ross said. “I knew there was no such thing and I just put my heart and soul into it and designed a prototype.”
The flag was also created to spark dialogue about race, and how to be tolerant of people of all backgrounds and ethnicities, said Dwayne Ross.
“After the cross burning, that is when we thought about a need for a Dr. King flag in our schools to create some sort of positive dialogue between other races, not just the black folks,” said Dwayne Ross. “He (King) was a talented speaker and he spoke from the heart. He made you feel his speeches when he spoke to you. You really believed that change is coming.”