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Lift Every Voice

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By Brian Funk, Editor

Local churches united on Jan. 20 to celebrate the legacy of Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in an event that honored those who fought for the freedoms that the black community enjoys today.

The annual celebration included songs of praise, speeches from local black leaders and a remembrance of King’s dream of equality, dignity and integrity for people of all races

This year’s event was held at The Redeemed Church on Mockingbird Lane in West Galax, a place with historic significance to the local black community.

The building was once an elementary school for black children, before the end of segregation. Now, it’s the home of an Apostolic congregation led by Bishop Charles Millner.

Some of the older members of the congregation attended the school, before public schools were integrated in 1960.

The Rev. Sue Greene of McMillian Ministries opened the service by reading from Exodus in the Bible. She said King led his people to freedom just as Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.

“We want to keep [King’s] legacy alive. What he achieved has gone beyond what he dreamed.”

Greene said 2008 is a year of great potential for the black community, with Sen. Barack Obama a strong contender for the Democratic nomination for the presidential race.

She hailed the Illinois senator as an example of King’s dream realized, and referred to Obama by the optimistic title of “the first black president of the United States.”

Greene said he is “exactly what Dr. King said would come to pass.”

She pointed to other black leaders in the country as examples of King’s dream made reality. “He was a prophet in his own time.”

Keshia Johnson said Dr. King was an inspiration to her. “He didn’t just talk about it, he was about it.”

She compared King to Jesus, who ministered to his disciples and sent them out to do his work in the world after he died. King’s dream grew bigger as others took up the struggle for equality, and his death galvanized the movement and gave it a rallying point.

Johnson said it was obvious God was working through King.

Her husband, Kevin Johnson, said King “sent out a call for peace and freedom, and God answered.”

Helen Kyle — Galax City Council member and president of the Galax-Grayson chapter of the NAACP — said she was honored to celebrate the legacy of a man who “through song, praise and thanksgiving, got through many dark days.

“We can’t forget the struggle Dr. King and others have gone through to give us our freedom.”

The celebration was a day to reflect on an often-painful past and look forward to a brighter future.

Though speakers alluded to modern-day incidents of racism and bigotry as signs that there is still work to do before King’s dream of a fully integrated society is complete, Greene said the biggest obstacle to success in the black community today is not oppression, but a lack of self-esteem.

“The only person holding you back is yourself,” Greene said, her voice rising with authority. “It’s your mentality. Your attitude. What you think of yourself. Encourage yourself and know you can succeed.”

Joanne Cox of Oldtown Baptist Church called on the local black community to come together to make a difference in the world.

Greene exhorted her congregation to rise above the feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness that can keep people from trying to get ahead. “You can do it today,” she said, noting local leaders like Kyle, Galax Vice Mayor Willie Greene and other black professionals in the audience.

The youth drama team from New Gospel Temple in Independence presented three short plays that illustrated that people of all races can have feelings of bigotry and prejudice toward others.

In each play, a young person speaks up to challenge a parent or adult who is intolerant — a Chinese youth reprimands his grandfather for saying he doesn’t trust a black shopper; a white child doesn’t see the racial differences between his playmates; a young black man challenges his boss for refusing to consider a Hispanic job candidate.

The theme of these scenarios, said Bishop Millner, was “Imagine the power of one voice.”

Juanita Brown said she wanted to honor local men and women who fought for Civil Rights in the 1950s. “They set us on the path we are on today.”

She told of her father, Matthew Goins, first president of the local NAACP chapter.

Goins stood up for what he believed, and challenged laws that kept blacks from eating in “Whites Only” restaurants in Galax.

“He began to sit down in Bolen’s Drug Store [in downtown Galax]. That’s why we’re sitting in freedom today,” Brown said.

Brown was threatened and her family shot at when she and other black children began attending Galax High School in 1960.

Levi Bryson’s car was shot at, with his family inside, she said.

Brown’s father, who had eight children, was fired from his job because of his stands against racism.

All of this happened, Brown said, “to get you where you are today.”

She said things are better now, but the fight for equality goes on. No one should take their freedom or their job for granted, knowing what their forefathers sacrificed.

Dionne Tucker, a teacher at Galax High School, said young people shouldn’t waste their day off on Martin Luther King Jr. Day by watching TV. They should learn about the man and his work. “We take for granted all these things we enjoy, all these freedoms.”

Elder David King, a member at New Gospel Temple, said that when he was growing up, he always looked forward to January. “I was always glued to the TV, because I knew I’d get to hear [Dr. King’s] speech.”

He said young people need to learn about the accomplishments of black culture, if that information isn’t in their textbooks.

Elder King’s message to the youth was to be a living example of Dr. King’s message. “Don’t be fooled by the glitz and the glamour and the hype of the world. Follow God and be excellent.”

Galax Vice Mayor Willie Greene said he has seen a lot of changes in his lifetime.

When he was about six years old, his father took him to the restaurant where he worked.

Greene’s father told him he couldn’t use the restroom there. “I saw people going in an out, and I asked why, but he would never explain it to me.”

Years later, he realized what the sign on the restroom door said: “Whites Only.”

To illustrate how things have improved, Greene laughed as he told the story of dining in a local restaurant and ordering Thousand Island dressing.

“They didn’t have any, so the manager left to buy a bottle for me. That’s a switch, isn’t it?”

Greene noted that black leaders in other parts of Virginia often express surprise that Galax has two black members on city council, even though blacks make up only six percent of the city’s population of about 7,000.

Even now — after serving as a council member and vice mayor for years — Greene occasionally gets reminded that there are those who haven’t abandoned their bigotry.

He recalled attending a local event, at which politicians are invited to speak. As he walked up to join the other state and local officials, he was stopped.

The man cautioned him that the line was only for politicians, as if it was inconceivable that Greene could be an elected official.

“Things have changed, but they haven’t changed,” Greene said.

Chris Saunders, who spoke at Sunday’s celebration about his own brushes with prejudice, said he has hope for the future. “This can be the best year of our lives — if we make it that way.”

Juanita Brown encouraged the congregation to register and vote, to exercise another hard-fought right won by their predecessors.

“Strive for the betterment of your self, your family and your culture,” Brown said. “Don’t walk with your head held down. You hold your destiny in your hand.”

WATCH ONLINE VIDEO:

GO TO YOUTUBE.COM TO SEE A 30-SECOND CLIP OF THE MCMILLIAN MINISTRIES CHOIR’S PERFORMANCE

SEARCH FOR KEYWORDS “GALAX CHOIR”