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The Negro national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was sung by me and my wife and more than 400 standing attendees at the end of the MLK prayer breakfast Monday at the Darden Alumni Center.
I never knew that national anthem existed. Listening to my singing and holding hands with a stranger and watching faces of old and young beam with those words was inspiring, alarmingly so.
Those words from the anthem drew me in, if ever so briefly, into the suffering history and unending hope of the Negro past in this country. Those words in a group of 400 mostly black people tears into your soul, your thinking, your belief that we are true to our God. Find it, my friends who I grew up with. Read it. I dare you.
The get-together was a church-like service with multiple reverends and smiling faces with songs from groups such as Rhythm and Soul and the Sallie B. Howard chorus. But I was there to meet and hear two people. One was Mayor Carlton Stevens. The other was Sheriff Cleveland “Clee” Atkinson. When MLK spoke of how he believes in young people, so was the overall theme of all the speakers.
Sheriff Atkinson’s words kept us all in stitches, but with purpose. He discussed the blueprint that is part of the defining purpose of the person Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement over these past decades.As all speakers, as Clee spoke, and as MLK spoke, it is about the children that we need to help them find their blueprint of who they are and why they were born and where they can aspire to go in their life’s journey. There were many classic phrases and metaphors from MLK lacing the sheriff’s presentation.
Mayor Stevens is part of this MLK movement; he gave an inspiring opening for this prayer breakfast. I spent some time with him. He told me what made him want to run for and become mayor. He said that he wants to lose himself in something that is bigger than who he was before he was elected to this current position. He wants to make Wilson into a better place for our children and their children. That was the common theme from all speakers and singers.
We all see on the TV news this week all that hatred that is emerging from so many hate groups seemingly bent on turning the clock back to a time when railroad tracks separated our town into black and white. Stevens told me he wants Wilson to become a lighthouse that beams its light over the misty ocean to allow people to make it to shore safely.
Stevens described meeting a lady in a grocery store who confronted him in a condescending tone. She asked him what One Wilson meant. After he described his vision, she said there will never be a One Wilson. That result became my hidden message from this MLK breakfast experience.
That hidden message is that while MLK and all of us are working hard to help all our children have a better life, to embrace diversity, to love everyone, what about the older Wilsonians who are in their 70s or 80s or 90s or older?
Some of us listened to Martin Luther King Jr when he was alive. Some of us lived through the race riots in the mid ‘60s. I worked in D.C. during that time. Many of us learned the MLK blueprint. But not all have.
Can we add to One Wilson a clear expansion of the MLK legacy and hope and dream to include all those gray-haired people who were raised here when color dictated what school you attended, what water fountain you drank from in a theater? Sheriff Atkinson spoke of “the dash.” The dash is that line on a tombstone separating your date of birth and your date of death. Let the dash be those children and the grandparents and great-grandparents. Let all who are alive be the dash between starting and ending.
Besides all the inspiring messages and feelings of inclusion, the breakfast was great, with grits, scrambled eggs, fatback, bacon, sausage, applesauce, toast and biscuits. But, the best, besides the fatback, was the jars of Grandma’s Molasses to pour all over those biscuits, which I did. Thank you, Sylvia’s Family Restaurant. If you did not attend, you missed not only a great breakfast, but being immersed into part of the bloodflow of what makes our Southern town One Wilson.
Martin Luther King Jr., your dream is our One Wilson spring, your dream is our One Wilson hope, your dream is the dash and blueprint to improve our One Wilson.
One Wilson, reach across the generations. One Wilson, be the dash that defines the MLK hope.
Oliver Hedgepeth, a native Wilsonian, is a professor of logistics, teaching online at the American Military University. Email him at email@example.com