‘In 1963, I doubt very seriously that any of King’s associates dreamed that our nation would ever honor him with a national holiday’
Neither the bone chilling cold or New Orleans Saints could keep people away from the stirring “28th Annual Rappahannock County Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Observance” Sunday evening at the Little Washington Theatre, this year’s theme: “MLK Status of the Dream: Where do we go from here?”
Rappahannock County officials in the crowd included Supervisor John Lesinski, School Board members Lucy “Pud” Maeyer and Rachel Bynum, former Rappahannock Schools Superintendent Dr. Bob Chappell, and former Washington Mayor John Fox Sullivan.
Maeyer and Chappell, the latter spending 44 years as an educator before retiring in 2010, along with 16-year-old students Mari Tisera of Wakefield Country Day School and Terry Jackson Jr., of Eastern View High School in Culpeper, served as panelists for the event. In separate remarks, each was tasked with interpreting Dr. King’s “Six Principles of Nonviolence.”
Tisera urged Americans to choose love over hate: “We must love all no matter your race, religion or background. Love will prosper.” Jackson, like Tisera a 10th grader, said for the two sides in today’s struggle for equality — “the side that wants change, and the side that is working to keep change away” — education, knowledge and discussion are all key, especially when it surrounds daily occurrences of racism, discrimination, segregation, hate crimes and more.
Maeyer acknowledged of the lengthy civil rights struggle: “I would find it very hard if I’m protesting and somebody comes up and spits on me, or some other hateful thing, to just keep on going thinking that I need to educate this person to be a better person and have more understanding. And I want you to think about some of these principles [of Dr. King’s] that are easy to say, but most difficult to live by. More power to him, I think they’re excellent. I think that anybody who chooses to live by these principles will be a better person than I.”
Dr. Chappell for the first time told the story of growing up a teenager in the segregated 1950s and 60s: “I saw the inequalities living in Greensboro, North Carolina. I saw the inequalities personally when I would go into public places and there were signs on water fountains and bathrooms labeled ‘whites only,’ no colored may come in here. And I also lived in Greensboro at the time of the non-violent sit down demonstrations.”
Attending the University of North Carolina, he continued, there were “very few” enrolled blacks. Before graduating in 1966, the former Rappahannock superintendent applied for two teaching positions in Virginia — one in an all-white setting, the other all black. Offered jobs at both, he chose the black classroom.
“I wanted to educate myself about African Americans,” Dr. Chappell explained. “After all, I didn’t know very many — my society had effectively blocked me from knowing very many as I grew up.” He now only wishes “more people could have the experiences similar to the one I had getting to know African Americans.”
Other participants in the MLK observance included Nan Butler Roberts, the longtime MLK celebration program director; Rev. Eugene Triplett of Rising Zion Baptist Church, who was master of ceremonies; Lillian Aylor, president of the Julia E. Boddie Scholarship Board; scholarship board member Bobby Glasker; talented vocalist Marie Davis Roman; award-winning pianist Mo Safren; and guest speaker Dr. Amy Tillerson-Brown, Professor of History at Mary Baldwin College.
Tillerson-Brown, who directs the college’s African American Studies while advising the national history honor society Phi Alpha Theta, is former director of the University of Virginia’s African American Heritage Program. She’s also taught at Virginia Tech, Morgan State University and Piedmont Virginia Community College.
An expert on the mid-twentieth century black community, including school segregation and integration challenges, her research interests include race and criminalization in Virginia from 1870 to 1950.
She took the audience back to 1963, the year Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech calling for civil and economic rights and an end to racism. He had a “dream of a color blind America,” the professor recalled, during a time when “segregation was a way of life,” unemployment among blacks stood at nearly 25 percent, and the civil rights movement was being closely “monitored” by the U.S. Justice Department.
“In 1963, I doubt very seriously that any of King’s associates dreamed that our nation would ever honor him with a national holiday or that the words of his speech . . . would be played and heard by millions,” she said.
Tillerson-Brown told the theatre that while “measurable strides to challenge inequality have been made in our ‘beloved’ America, in 2019 however we still contend with the manacles of segregation and chains of discrimination.” She cited “astounding” income disparities between white and black populations, higher incarceration rates of African Americans, and an unacceptable ratio of minority teachers in our schools.
“Without a question the majority of students in public schools are students of color and only 18 percent of our teachers are teachers of color,” she said. “We have an urgent need to act. We’ve got to understand that all students benefit from teacher diversity. We have strong evidence that students of color benefit from having teachers and leaders who look like them as role models and also benefit from the classroom dynamic that diversity creates.
“But it’s also important for our white students to see teachers of color in leadership roles and in their classroom communities,” she said. “So what do we do in keeping with the theme, ‘Where do we go from here?’ What would Mrs. Julia Boddie have done?”
Born in 1914, Boddie was one of 16 children of Eddie and Alberta Sims. A resident of Washington and worshipper at First Baptist Church, she taught students at Washington Graded School, Washington Elementary School, and later Rappahannock County Elementary School.
She was an advocate for “tough love,” and according to the Boddie Scholarship Committee “didn’t mind telling you the truth, even when it hurt a little, but most will agree that they are better persons today for having known” and been taught by her.
Thirty years ago, Boddie’s former students came up with the idea of a scholarship in her name, now presented each year to a Rappahannock County graduating senior who is in need of financial assistance to attend college. This past Sunday, a total of $2,483 was donated to the scholarship by attendees of the MLK observance, including a $1,000 gift from a unanimous Washington town resident.
After Culpeper-based pianist Safren’s emotive performance of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Roman, who grew up in Washington and now lives in Newport News, led the entire audience in holding hands and singing “Love Train,” the No. 1 hit by the O’Jays.
As Boddie Scholarship head Lillian Aylor observed in thanking program director Nan Butler Roberts, the annual MLK celebration somehow “gets better” every year.