By Barney Blakeney
This week, Charleston and the nation wrapped up celebrations of the Martin L. King Jr. Holiday. What now, that the celebrations and programs are over?
In Charleston, the Greater YWCA of Charleston marked its 46th annual tribute to King with 10 days of observances. The YWCA’s tribute has grown since it began during the administration of YWCA icon, retired executive Director Christine Scott Jackson. Mrs. Jackson is cousin to King’s wife, the late Coretta Scott King. She enticed both King and Coretta to come to Charleston as the city engaged civil rights struggles. After King’s assassination, Jackson launched the annual YWCA tribute, one of the most prominent in our state.
After a long and arduous struggle, the City of Charleston followed the YWCA’s lead. Then Charleston City Councilman Robert Ford worked relentlessly to get the city to designate King’s birthday a municipal holiday. South Carolina in 2000 was the last state the nation to designate King’s birthday a holiday.
This year will mark the 50th anniversary of King’s April 4, 1968 assassination. The ‘60s were some violent years – John Kennedy was shot in 1962, Medgar Evers was killed in June 1963 and the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed killing four Black girls later that September, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were killed in Mississippi while registering Black voters in 1964, Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, King was killed in April 1968 and Robert Kennedy was killed a few months later in June. The Vietnam War was raging and FBI and CIA assassinations were rampant all over the world. It truly was ‘a time to kill’.
So last week as the King observances approached I had the usual reflections – where were we then, where are we now? The number 50 gives some reference to time. As I get older, numbers are beginning to have greater meaning. They not only designate a quantity of time. I reflect on what the number represents.
In the 50 years since King was assassinated much has changed relevant to race in America. Black folks have gone from being forced to ride on the back of the bus to being able to drive the bus. Of course a lot hasn’t changed – racial segregation still is widely practiced – Black folks can sit anywhere on buses, but today Black folks are the only ones on buses. That racism just is manifested differently.
I attended the 20th annual Martin L. King Jr. Picture Awards hosted by S.C. Rep. Wendell Gilliard. WCSC news anchor Raphael James was master of ceremonies. The brother did a bang-up job! I’ve always admired James and his work. I first met him a few years back at the weekly lunch program sponsored by Evening of Prayer COGIC on Union Heights in North Charleston. A consummate professional, I’m impressed at how much engaged the brother is in our community at so many levels.
But every time I see the brother I’m reminded that it took a lot of effort to get a Black man to do news in Charleston. Steve Esteves and the late Cliff Graham were among the first. That didn’t happen until the 1970s. I always applaud Lisa Wineglass Smalls for her untiring efforts advocating for Black male news personalities in this area. If James’ presence in Charleston is any indication of how vital and beneficial her efforts were, it was worth it. The picture awards program was awesome. Rev. Anna Miller of Wesley UMC in Charleston gave a stirring message for the occasion. The Citadel Gospel Choir was impressive, especially seeing that the group included young men and women of various ethnic groups – individuals who 50 years ago were not allowed to attend the institution.
I couldn’t get to the annual YWCA Martin L. King Jr. Business and Professional Breakfast on Tuesday, but I attended last year. Boeing CEO Joan Robinson-Berry this year was keynote speaker, a Black woman who heads up Boeing’s operations in South Carolina. This sister is phenomenal! While juggling marriage and motherhood, Robinson-Berry launched into a career that has taken her into international business for both suppliers and customers. She is admired for her innovation, critical thinking, team building and solid decision-making skills. She has a Master of Science degree in Engineering Management & Business Administration. She realizes the change 50 years makes and embodies a reality that the movie ‘Hidden Figures’ reveals exited years ago.
In the past week I’ve struggled to rationalize the tributes to King against the backdrop of our society 50 years after his sacrificial death. Last year a 21-year-old Dylann Roof was sentenced in the racially motivated murders of nine Blacks at Emanuel AME Church and 36-year-old former North Charleston policeman Michael Slager, a white man, was sentenced for killing Walter Scott, an unarmed Black man. Since King died a new generation continues the same racism. I’ve asked myself what good are the tributes and commemorations? Then last night I read something that offers some answers. In her January 15 Justice Initiative commentary Heather Gray offered that, “apart from his (King’s) profound leadership, speeches and analysis of the problems faced in the world, he was and remains a spiritual force in taking a stand for and loving humanity … “ She spoke of King’s “leadership, his sacrifice, his transformative service to those in need and those seeking justice.”
Certainly King deserves tribute, but we must not forget King was a man of action, a brilliant man whose goal wasn’t merely to conduct dog and pony shows. Ever-evolving, King plotted strategies to accomplish tangible goals. The speeches and programs were designed to focus attention and to inform and motivate. And he put in the work. King’s efforts didn’t stop after holding press conferences. He took it to the streets.
So what happens now that the celebrations and programs are over? As Frederick Douglass said, “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”