Biggest crowd ever for Rapp MLK observance

“A great Rappahannock coming together experience.” So proclaimed Washington Mayor John Fox Sullivan following Sunday’s 27th Annual Rappahannock County Birthday Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on what is the 50th anniversary of the civil rights leader’s assassination.

This year’s theme: “Let the Spirit of History be your Guide.”

MLK celebration speakers and honorees included (left to right) Lillian Aylor, Bill Plante, Robin Smith, Bishop Carroll A. Baltimore, and Nan Butler Roberts. Photo by David Reuther

Rappahannock native and MLK celebration program director Nan Butler Roberts observed in her introduction, “Dr. King’s words ring as true today as they did 50 plus years ago: ‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.’

“Paraphrasing now, Dr. King challenged all of us, ‘One day, some great opportunity stands before you to stand up for a great principle, great issue or cause . . . what will you do? Will you be afraid of the consequences, the criticism, backlash, or greater consequence? What will you do?’”

Sponsored as is tradition by the Julia E. Boddie Scholarship Committee, the annual birthday observance at the Theatre at Washington didn’t allow for an empty seat as the Rappahannock community came out in large numbers to see global Interfaith Leader Bishop Carroll A. Baltimore, who as a young man was pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Woodville, presented with the DreamKeeper Award.

“A total star as speaker,” praised Sullivan after remarks by the bishop, who among other liturgical hats was a special ministerial advisor in President Barack Obama’s administration.

“Bishop Baltimore could have been many, many, many places today,” Roberts told the audience. “But, he felt it necessary to be in Rappahannock County, Virginia. When he heard of fliers being distributed in driveways and doorsteps in our community — that were not welcome signs for some of us — he simply said, ‘I’ll be there,’ meaning here in Rappahannock.”

Also on hand for the celebration was Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Robin Smith, who screened her much-discussed documentary, “Come Walk in My Shoes,” a personal journey with Georgia Rep. John Lewis as he revisited civil rights movement landmarks of the 1950’s and 60’s.

Bishop Baltimore joined Smith, and former longtime CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante, for a Q&A session following the screening. Plante told this newspaper: “I was there in February and March 1965 covering Dr. King’s campaign for voter registration in Selma. During a demonstration in a nearby town, a young man was shot and later died. That was what led John Lewis to call for the march in which he and others were severely beaten.

“Despite it all, Dr. King and John Lewis never wavered in their insistence on non-violence. Public reaction to their bravery helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1965. But that didn’t end racism. It still exists. The demonstrations were a game changer, but they were not the finish line.”

Added Washington resident Kit Goldfarb, who helped organize the “Hate Has No Home Here” yard sign movement following the recent KKK leaflet drops from Sperryville to Flint Hill: “At a time when many of us may feel discouraged by some of the events currently happening in our country and even our own communities, it is very inspirational to come together to celebrate leaders such as Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and Bishop Baltimore. All of them have dedicated their lives to make our lives, our country, and the world a better place. Despite setbacks and personal danger, none of them ever lost hope.

“I was especially moved by Bishop Baltimore, who grew up in Fauquier and knew many members of the audience, as he spoke about his continued activism and continued hopefulness. As we all joined arms and sang ‘We Shall Overcome,’ I am sure many of us were thinking of other times and other places, and also feeling hopeful that, as John Lewis said, we’ve come a long way, but we still have far to go.”

Reacted Susan Hoffman, head of Belle Meade Montessori School in Sperryville: “The nonviolence on the part of the demonstrators showed the power of nonviolence to change the world in a respectful way. The parallel with the present day prejudice is striking.”

“For me,” said Smith in discussing her documentary, “the magic of the film is that it distills one decade in the history of the nonviolent struggle for equality and voting rights — 1955 to 1965 — into one hour.

“The personal stories shared by John Lewis and his colleagues in the movement enable the viewer to see connections among milestone events — from the bus boycott in Montgomery through the lunch counter sit-ins, the freedom rides, demonstrations in Birmingham and culminating with the nation’s reaction to Bloody Sunday when marchers were beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Ordinary people inspired by Martin Luther King and the philosophy on nonviolence stood up to hatred and changed the course of history for all of us.”

“The documentary was an experience, brought tears to the eyes of many,” observed Mayor Sullivan. “Some in the audience were singing or humming with songs and music on the soundtrack . . . the whole experience was very touching.”

Said Trinity Episcopal Church Rector the Rev. H. Miller Hunter: “I’m from Alabama and tears were coming down my cheeks.”

Also performing for the packed house, the largest anybody has seen for almost three decades of the MLK event, was the DreamKeeper Tribute Choir. Rev. Sara Keeling, pastor of Rappahannock’s United Methodist Church community, served as master of ceremonies, while Rev. Ronald Johnson, pastor of Hopewell Baptist Church in Sperryville gave the benediction.

Other speakers included Lillian Aylor, president of the Julia E. Boddie Scholarship Board. According to Roberts, educational scholarship donations from those at the event totaled $3,165.

“This included a $1,500 anonymous donation from a Rappahannock County citizen!” Roberts revealed.

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John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at