Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” This is paraphrasing the Reverend Martin Luther King’s statement in the sermon her presented the day after the march in Selma. “A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right…. to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is true.”
Monday, January 15, will bring to Lewisburg and to the world, a celebration, tribute, and remembrance of MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. and his incredible, inspiring legacy.
The celebration in our little town has come a long way since its original inception in 1982, more than 35 years ago (two years before the federal holiday was declared for the 3rd Monday of each January), when a handful of people marched through Lewisburg to honor Dr. King’s legacy. West Virginia was one of the few early states to create a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday celebration, with local observance both here and in surrounding communities. In the early 90’s Vista and Americorps developed a national day of service theme under the banner of MLK Day – a day on/not off, and it was at the point that the celebrations became larger, with Lewisburg United Methodist Church getting actively involved. A community meal was added, now serving more than 300 people, free of charge, and the presentation became increasingly well-attended. Then the symbolic March from the Courthouse was added, under the banner which reads, “An Injustice Anywhere Is a Threat to Justice Everywhere”. Now this event marks the largest MLK celebration in the state, with a large assemblage of all races and all ages, walking as friends, allies, partners, and celebrants!
One of the main organizers and inspirational coordinator has been Steve Rutledge, who I have been proud to work with in the past several years. He was there from the beginning. Remember the famous photo of the Mississippi Woolworth’s lunch counter “sit-in”, where students were bombarded with mustard, paint, sugar, ashtrays, and the like? That was the spring of 1963 and Steve Rutledge was there. Within two weeks, over a thousand people were imprisoned for protesting racial inequality. Jailed three times himself, Steve was involved with people who were martyred for their pursuit of civil rights. In June, 1963, after leading a demonstration, Rutledge learned of the murder of NAACP state director Medgar Evers. He wrote of the funeral: “On a terribly hot day in June of 1963 a riot broke out in Jackson, Mississippi during the funeral procession for Medgar Evers. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in the march but his family feared for his safety and I was assigned the task of driving him to the airport and getting him there safely to protect his life. I did so…”
Rutledge came to live in Greenbrier County in the early 70s, where he remains hard at work for the Civil Rights Movement’s highest principles, and is a mainstay of the MLK committee. He says, “…it gives each of us a chance to unite with one or more other persons to make something better – it could be our family, our school, our job, or our community.” And, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention and credit Larry Davis, who is everywhere, all the time, and is a most beloved and enthusiastic citizen of Lewisburg. Without Larry’s tireless efforts, this event would not be what it is, and I hope he knows how much he is appreciated.
This year’s event will reflect some changes, bringing some new participants into the fold. There will be a violin duo, and there will be singing by all, including an energetic singing-and-dancing youth group performance of the song “Glory” from the movie Selma, as well as other beautiful choral voices raised in praise, with all ages participating. And as always, there will be the children’s Art and Essay Contest, with the winners reading their lovely, heartfelt words. Reading more than a hundred children’s essays about Dr. King will bring you to tears. They are new to the world. They are inspiring, idealistic, and innocent, from the mouths of babes, truly, and the message is pure. “I learned that Martin Luther King, Jr., believed in people,” says one. “He made me believe in myself…He was brave and peaceful and wanted no one to get hurt.” They can bring us to our knees with the pure sentiments they convey about the world around them, making me believe the right choices can be made. Read these children’s essays and you will feel better about the world, I promise.
The keynote speaker this year will be Larryetta Ellis, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) called to serve the Edgewood Presbyterian Church here in Lewisburg. Rev. Ellis is a native of Georgia and received her foundational education there. She received her Masters of Divinity degree from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 2007. She served as a chaplain at Norton Hospital and also at Presbyterian Homes in Louisville. Prior to coming to West Virginia, Rev. Ellis also served as co-pastor of Beuchel Presbyterian Church in Louisville.
Having relocated to Greenbrier County in January 2013, Rev. Ellis considers herself to be part of this community. “Once I learned to navigate the mountains and curves without my heart palpitating, I considered myself a native”, she said.
Rev. Ellis brings to the area and to this event her life experiences of advocating for the least among us. We are all looking forward to hearing what she will bring to us at the event.
Join us, won’t you? Line up at the Courthouse at 11am on Monday, January 15th, and march with us to Lewisburg’s Courthouse to Washington Street’s Lewisburg United Methodist Church. There will be a free meal for all who attend, followed by a wonderful presentation. You will be inspired. You will have tears. You will feel love and compassion and spiritual camaraderie.
If you wish to donate to this or any future MLK Day of Remembrance, please contact us at MLK Committee, CYAC, 212 Washington St., Lewisburg, WV 24901. Donations and/or participation would be welcome.
I also wish to mention the upcoming Summit on Race Matters, on February 23, 5-8:30 PM and the following day from 8 AM to 4:30 PM. (Lunch will be served on Saturday.) Race Matters in West Virginia is a diverse group of people from across the state with the expressed intention of bringing people together to raise awareness, educate, confront and eradicate personal, systematic, and institutional racism. This gathering will take place in the Fort Arts and Sciences Building at the New River Community and Technical College in Lewisburg. It’s to be the fourth Summit on Race Matters in as many years for improving race relations and advancing the cause of civil rights in West Virginia, and the theme for this one is “The Time Is Now”. There will be speakers and entertainment plus eight workshops to choose from. Arley Johnson of Advocates for The Other America will be one of the speakers and two leaders of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute will present one of the workshops.
So stand up for what is right, for things that matter, for injustice anywhere. Zero tolerance of racial comments or jokes. Zero tolerance of bullying anyone, ever. Zero tolerance of unfair practices. Zero tolerance of judgement regarding someone else’s religious beliefs, though they may not be the same as yours. Zero harassment of any kind, even when others laugh it off. Just say, “Excuse me, but I need to say this…” and then go for it.
100 percent Kindness and compassion, taking the high road, accepting those who are not just like you should be the practice at the end of the day. To me, what it boils down to is basic human rights, human compassion, human benevolence and kind-heartedness, and support of the right to disagree with what any one of us believes. I, in my sometimes idealistic faith and innocence, believe that we can all move forward and work together to make it a better world. It’s not too late. These words are the truth: Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
– Susanna Robinson. Photography by Jamie Wykle. Hashtag #97 January 2018.