Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and legacy have come to symbolize the power of non-violence to overcome repression and inequality. Since his untimely death at the hands of an assassin in 1968, the moniker “MLK” is now rarely separated from others who died for the cause of freedom; JFK, RFK, Lincoln, Gandhi. But there is a growing concern among many Americans that the US holiday honoring MLK, once thought of as a “day on” to be used by younger generations to continue the fight for equality and justice is now being seen as little more than a “day off” from work. On Sunday members of the Zion Baptist Church in Berryville, Virginia took a step forward in reversing that trend.
Zion Baptist Church pastor Delbert Hicks, along with three other speakers, participated in a panel discussion after Sunday afternoon’s church service honoring Dr. King, to address many painful topics that continue to plague the African American community more than forty years after passage of America’s historic Civil Rights legislation.
“Dr. King dreamt of a time when the oppressed would have an opportunity to fulfill their dreams” Hicks told the many community members, both black and white who packed Zion Baptist’s small sanctuary. “Because of his sacrifice the dream is now a reality for many people. We still have more to do but people need to stop looking at the negative and begin seeing the positive.”
In addition to Hicks, panel members included Dr. James Bryant, A former history professor at Shenandoah University, Cynthia Butler, a human relations specialist and NAACP officer, and Ray Crawford, Jr., a staff member at the Department of Education and a published author.
The panel faced tough questions about teen pregnancy, HIV, low education scores and unemployment from the panel’s moderator, LaVarn Gordon. For instance, Gordon asked the panel why education achievement was significantly lower for black students than other racial segments.
The panelists were equally forthright in their replies.
“If you’re not subsidizing your child’s education at home nothing else is going to help very much” said Ray Crawford. “We need to do much more to foster learning at home. As parents, we also have to attend PTA meetings in order to understand what’s going on in the classroom.”
“Education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century” said Cynthia Butler in answer to the same question and urged accountability on a local level. “I believe that in order for this country to survive we have to educate all of our children.”
Reverend Hicks agreed.
“”Without knowledge the people will perish” Hicks said quoting scripture. “The lack of education is allowing our children to die without ever knowing that they can fully live.”
On the topic of re-integration or incarcerated African Americans back into the community Butler was blunt in encouraging local communities to take a more prominent role and more personal risk.
“There’s no such thing as not-in-my-backyard for the African American community” Butler said. “If we reject these people in our own community then just where will they go?”
Butler, the only female panel member, was especially passionate about preventing teen pregnancy.
“Women, how you carry yourself is so important” Butler said. “Remember that there’s always someone watching you. We need to tell our young women every day ‘You are beautiful, you are smart’. Our young women and our young men also need to know that we value them.”
The panel also addressed the problem of the decline in the black family.
“Fewer than 40% of black children live with two parents” Gordon said “and black children are twice as likely to live with neither parent. What is happening to the black family?”
Dr. James Bryant, a former history professor, recounted that one of the first things that occurred after the Civil War during Reconstruction was that black families went in search of lost family members taken away under slavery. Bryant said that the love of family is still strong today, although the black family may not necessarily conform to the majority culture definition of “family.”
“Family still sustains us today” Bryant said. “Maybe we’re going through a redefinition of just what the black family is.”
Pastor Hicks struck a similar chord saying that the restructuring of the black family may be part of a divine plan.
“Maybe God is raising up a new generation of his soldiers who are going to re-establish the truth – who will say ‘This is who I am.’” Hicks said. “I have faith that God is going to mold and take us where we need to go and I believe that the black family is going to survive. The black family may not look the way society might want it to look, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t survive.”
The panel also commented on the devastating impact that HIV has had on the African American population citing statistics that one in twenty female residents in Washington DC may have HIV.
“Somehow people are willing to share intimate trust even though they may know nothing about the other person” said Crawford. “We all have to realize that a person’s ‘status’ isn’t just what you see on Facebook.”
Not surprisingly, many comments by Pastor Hicks were based on the foundations of truth and love so prevalent throughout the Bible. Hicks implored his congregation and others in attendance to remember that Dr. King repeatedly resisted the urge to fight violence with more violence.
“Martin Luther King was much more than just his ‘I have a dream’ speech” Hicks said. “We have watered down what his life meant if we think of him in only that way. Dr. King was a dreamer but he was also an activist. We have to be activists too. Even with a black president we can’t look to someone else to be the solution. We need to take charge of ourselves and evoke the change that we want.”
Prior to the Zion Baptist Church panel discussion, approximately 25 citizens, including Clarke County Board of Supervisors Chairman Michael Hobert (Berryville) and School Board chairman Janet Alger (Russell) gathered at the Josephine School Museum to view a biographical film about Dr. King’s life.
The film was hosted by Josephine School Museum board member Dorothy Davis.
After the film Davis tearfully recounted being personally present at freedom marches and witnessing firsthand the violence that was often wrought on marchers. Davis said that every time she sees images of the Civil Rights marches it only serves to increase her admiration for Dr. King.
“I just think that he must have been such a strong human being to have been able to surpass all of the evil that came into his life” Davis said. “Because of him we all have better lives today.”