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Galax’s annual Martin Luther King Day celebration is always a time for the black community to rejoice, remember a painful past and look forward to a brighter future.
But this year — maybe more so than any time since the passing of Civil Rights laws of the 1960s — was a time to lift every voice and sing about the fulfillment of King’s dream of equality for all races.
“It has been a long time coming, but it has come,” said Pastor Sue Greene of Redeemed Church in Galax, who led the Jan. 18 service with a fiery conviction tempered with unbridled joy.
She proclaimed that Obama’s election was a triumph because a majority of Americans — not just African-Americans — chose the new president based on the content of his character, not the color of his skin. That’s just what King wanted.
It’s this fact that inspires her, she said. “The whole United States of America stood up and said ‘Change!’ for all mankind. America spoke — not just African-Americans — 60 million people.”
Greene reminded the audience gathered in the Galax High School auditorium that King’s dream was fairness and justice for all men — who, in the words of the U.S. Constitution, were created equal.
To her, Obama’s biracial heritage is a powerful symbol of the black and white races finally coming together and putting aside differences.
Greene said First Lady Michelle Obama was criticized after the November 2008 election for saying she was proud of her country now. Some pundits questioned why she wasn’t proud before her husband’s election.
Greene said that sentiment is hard to understand for those who didn’t live through the Civil Rights struggle or remember the social injustices blacks suffered.
“It’s hard to be 11 years old in 5th grade and wonder if you’re really proud to be an American,” she said. “I went to Bridle Creek School, but I didn’t know if I was part of it. I was put off in a corner and not allowed to sit with the rest of the class.”
She and her cousin were the only black students in class. She remembers the lowest point of her school days as the time her teacher told a racist joke in class that contained a racial epithet.
“The teacher and the students laughed and laughed” in front of the two little girls, Greene said. “He laughed until his face turned red.”
Decades later, that day still hurts. To be begrudgingly “accepted” into school. To be treated as less than equal, less than human.
“We used to have to walk with our heads down and couldn’t even look eye-to-eye with a white man,” Greene said, smiling again. “But today, Dr. King’s dream has come to pass and it will continue to be fulfilled in our young men and women.”
The speakers at the Martin Luther King Day event were young black professionals that graduated from Galax High School — Keisha Brown, Dodie Robinson, Jackie Dalton, Corbitt Hairston and Walter Bryant — and Dalton’s husband Robert, a high school principal.
They spoke about how they achieved despite personal and societal obstacles, their feelings about Martin Luther King and what Obama’s election meant to them.
Hairston, now a teacher in Roanoke, said the celebration’s theme of “A Dream Realized” is a powerful one.
“Young people know about Dr. King from a textbook, from black-and-white TV footage from 40 years ago,” Hairston said, but a whole generation of children are watching history unfold before them.
Greene notes later that these children will never know that a black person can’t be president — something that was a lofty and merely theoretical goal before.
Now, there’s proof that it’s possible.
“I have to imagine that the angel of Dr. Martin Luther King is somewhere watching all this and saying ‘I told you so!’” Hairston said. He imagines Harriett Tubman, Frederick Douglas and other black leaders looking down, too. “What would they think?”
He thanked the Civil Rights leaders who worked, marched, shed tears, shed blood and even gave their lives just to allow him to get an education.
Later, GHS alumnus Dodie Robinson quoted Maya Angelou, who said that we must all realize “that you are paid for by your ancestors, and it is our responsibility to pay for somebody else.”
She said her grandparents paid that price. “Going to the movies was normal for me, but not for them. They didn’t grow up in a world where a black man could be president — but I did.”
Robinson encouraged everyone to “remember those who paved the way for you and instill the confidence and values in our young people to make the world a better place.”
Keisha Brown said the older generation appreciates the struggle for equality more than people of her generation and younger. “Some had to walk from Independence to Galax to go to school” because black students weren’t allowed anywhere else.
Hairston said his students don’t really understand the full significance of the 2008 election. They saw people cheering and crying after Obama won, and asked him why.
“I told them that when those election results came in, 400 years of a system that said you were inferior, you were second class, you weren’t good enough and you didn’t belong... On Nov. 4, that door closed.”
Hairston said Obama will be under more pressure and more scrutiny because he is the first African-American to hold the post, and African-Americans will expect a lot. “My mother always told me that in order to be equal to, you have to be better than.”
While watching the Democratic National Convention on TV, Hairston said his 8-year-old son Elijah was fascinated when Obama stood to accept the nomination.
“He looks like me,” Elijah said with wonder.
Hairston said that was a powerful statement. “In my mind, I could see millions of little African-American children watching Obama win and thinking ‘There’s nothing I can’t do.’”
GHS alumnus Walter Bryant said that Obama’s run for the White House resulted in a first for him and his friends — they started talking about politics.
Bryant said that the big question is “What are we going to do now?”
He said that Obama’s win should inspire people to give back to the community and work to make the world a better place. Everyone has the power to bring about change, even if they don’t hold an office.
That sentiment was echoed later by Galax Vice Mayor Willie Greene.
“Barack Obama was highly educated. He could have worked anywhere he wanted, but he chose to work in the community and give back.”
The vice mayor said Obama’s experience was criticized during the campaign by those who said he was “just” a community organizer. “Well, now he’s president.”
Organizing, strengthening and rebuilding communities is a noble effort, he said. “I encourage all of you to go out and make your community a better place.”
The speakers also talked about how they achieved their goals in life and the people who inspired them.
Bryant said he couldn’t have accomplished anything without God and his family shaping his life.
Bryant, a 1992 GHS grad, works with teens with learning disabilities, many of whom have been abused, neglected or are on drugs.
Robinson said her mother taught her that she could get anywhere she wanted to go through education, and she worked two jobs to send Robinson to college.
“And she never fails to remind me,” she joked. “She has all the cancelled checks.”
Hairston is in his 15th year of teaching — 10 of those in Roanoke — but still comes home to Galax on weekends.
Hairston thanked his mother and his grandfather, Lewis King, for inspiring him to succeed.
His grandfather, a World War I veteran, had only a third-grade education and didn’t have much money, “but he stretched it out the best he could.”
He’ll never forget the man’s advice from his childhood: “I want you to be a better man than me.”
Jackie Dalton left Galax to attend Emory & Henry, where she became a basketball star. She scored 1,100 points in her college career and set a school record for scoring the most points, 34, in one game.
Dalton struggled after pursuing her physical education teaching career, but finally found a home at Magna Vista High School in Martinsville, where she is the PE department chair and coaches two sports.
She said it takes time and perseverance to reach goals sometimes, and no one should give up. “Everybody here has a purpose. Whether you’re 28 or 58, it’s not too late to find it.”
Brown worked in management for years before finding her purpose, she said.
She’s been working at the New River Regional Jail for the past three years, and found her calling in ministering to inmates “so they can make something of themselves when they get out.”
She prays with them, and they touch her heart.
Now, her goal is to become a correctional officer so she can get more involved in the inmates’ lives.
Dionne Tucker, a government teacher at GHS, thanked her single mother for raising her and her sisters.
As she walks through the halls at GHS, she appreciates that her mother — before schools were integrated in the 1960s — had to ride “a rickety old bus” to Wytheville every day for school.
“I tell my students that it hasn’t always been like this,” Tucker said. “If not for our ancestors and people like Dr. King, I couldn’t be a teacher or go into any restaurant I want.”
Tucker is working on her master’s degree in education and her goal is to be a high school principal.
Sue Greene said that Obama’s election is just the start. “There is still so much to be done.”
She said she’s often the only person of color at meetings she attends. “It’s not about the color of your skin anymore. Give black people an opportunity.”
Greene notes that all the young black professionals who spoke at the event had to leave Galax to get jobs.
“But don’t give up. Keep studying. Keep applying. Keep trying.”