“When I am 18, I’ll vote for somebody good for our country.”

Those words were said by Drahcir Eneje during Heart of God Ministries’ annual black history celebration Sunday.

His statement was made a few days after watching the movie “Selma,” about the historic march from Selma, Ala., to the state capital of Montgomery for the right to vote. The march was led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was initially met with violence, but eventually proceeded peacefully.

But the words of Drahcir, an elementary school student, had special meaning to some of the more than 100 people in the audience.

Many can remember not being able to vote and the indignities associated with being an African-American in a white society.

So, hearing Drahcir and other youth speak goals, like voting and attending college, made some believe society isn’t where it should be on race relations, but it is not where it was.

One of those is Bishop Fred T. Simms, pastor at Heart of God Ministries, who recalled as a child being told to get off the nickel hobby horse by a white woman “so her son could go,” he said.

During the two-plus-hour celebration, speakers stressed the importance of education. The keynote speaker, Brian O. Hemphill, president of West Virginia State University, recalled coming up poor in rural North Carolina, the youngest of eight children, and said education was the way out. 

He told the audience that of the 75 African-American men in his graduating class, three went off to college, because guidance counselors pushed them into the cotton mills or the military.

“I am not saying there is anything wrong with the military or the mills. But all of the options must be on the table for our youth,” he said, to a round of applause and amens.

Nobody, he said, was born great, not even Oprah Winfrey or President Barack Obama, but those that are have one thing in common: access to an education.

But gaining that education is getting harder and harder, he said. Federal and state governments cutting higher education budgets is denying many access to that education, he said.

“I think we are traveling a dangerous road, right now,” he said of budget cuts. Access to an affordable education is being hindered by budget cuts, which is forcing tuition to go up and essentially halting many students from studying for a college degree.

“Education is the only sure way out of poverty,” he said.

In West Virginia, if the new budget is approved, more than $44 million will have been cut from higher education budgets. This, said Hemphill, could lead to education being an option that only the wealth can afford.

He said in 2014, the average graduate left college with a debt burden of $33,000. This is the first time in history that student loan debt exceeds credit card debt.

Access to education would help bring the eye-popping African-American youth unemployment rate down, Hemphill predicted. The national unemployment average for people between 16 to 24 is 14.2 percent; for African-Americans it is 21.4 percent, he said.

“We cannot allow a generation of young people” to have a worste lifestyle than their parents, he said.

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