“Unity. Freedom. Love.”
For Regina Horner these are the high ideals represented by the late civil rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and they were what came immediately to her mind when she was asked what MLK Day meant to her. To those ideals, she added a deep sense of gratitude that went even beyond the works of the civil rights leader and to the heart of her faith.
“Without God, without Jesus Christ, had he not given his love, none of this would have happened,” Horner explained after a short program honoring King on Monday at Franklin’s downtown gazebo. Indeed, for many the MLK holiday is a time for deep reflection, a time to remember the past, as well as look forward to the future.
A proponent of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance, at age 35, King became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, which he was awarded for his work in the struggle to end racial discrimination. King also spoke out for labor and against the Vietnam War before his assassination in 1968.
Despite the grey clouds which threatened rain or snow throughout the afternoon, a sizable crowd showed up to celebrate King’s legacy on Monday. The program at the gazebo followed a march up town hill from Big Bear Park and included a reading of King’s “Six Principles of Non-Violence” by Shanequa Blair and Latoya Livingston. Also, in what has become a tradition for Franklin’s MLK Day celebrations, Mozart Moliere read King’s famous “I have a Dream” speech in its entirety.
The program also included singing, remarks by town leaders, including Mayor Joe Collins and school board member Gary Shields, as well as a karate demonstration by students at Danny Antoine’s Karate Academy. Horner’s daughter, Madisson was one of those students.
Remembering a small revolution in Franklin
Some at the gazebo on Monday had lived during the era of segregation and had first-hand accounts of the impact of the civil rights movement on Macon County.
Claudette Burston, who was born and raised in Macon County, had been a student at the segregated West Franklin School, the present location of the Macon County Schools Central Office. She also recalled being part of a small but significant protest in the heart of Franklin at a local restaurant.
In those days, Franklin, like many communities in the South, maintained a “separate but equal” policy for its African-American citizens. In practice, this meant not only separate schools, but separate water fountains downtown, separate entrances at businesses and the other wellknown discriminatory practices of the day.
“When we went to the cafés, we had to go in through the back door to get hamburgers and that kind of stuff,” recalled Burston. She remembered being a little girl and getting ice cream at Angel’s Drugstore on Main Street. “We could go get ice cream, but we had to stand to get it and then go outside to eat it,” she said. “All the other kids [the white kids] were sitting on the seats and in the booths.”
With the perspective of a little girl, the situation just didn’t make sense to Burston. “I used to say, ‘I can’t wait until we get to do that, too’.”
But when Burston became a young woman, she and her peers were inspired by news of the civil rights movement and leaders like Dr. King. One Sunday afternoon in the mid-1960s, Burston and her friends decided to take a stand. Like many restaurants in town, Bryson’s Restaurant, which sat at the corner of W. Palmer Street and Porter Street, had a no-inside-dining policy for blacks, who were forced to place their orders at the back door.
“That day I said, ‘I’m tired of this,’” Bryson remembered. “I had money, so I said, ‘I’ll buy us a hamburger or something to eat.’ So a bunch of us girls we went in and sat down on the stools.”
Bryson remembers that the priest of the Catholic Church happened to be in the restaurant that day. The priest noticed that the waitress was hesitating, and according to Burston, he stepped forward. “He said, ‘Serve ’em. They got money, and they want to eat. So serve ’em,’” Burston recounted. That day the women had their lunch at the counter.
Yvonne Bryson was also at the counter with Burston. While their action did not have the ramifications of other notable protests during those years – from Selma, Ala., to Greensboro, N.C. – it marked a significant change in the small community of Franklin. Today, both women work with the Human Relations Committee of Macon County, and for both women, Dr. King has been an inspiration.
“He was a religious man,” said Burston. “That’s what I love about him. He was a black man, but he wanted freedom for everyone, not just for blacks.”
“And it wasn’t just blacks out there marching,” Bryson added. “No, it was all kinds of people, whites, jews, blacks, all together.”
Growing unity for the future
Monday’s celebration also offered a glimpse into the future. Young people from the LBJ Job Corps School participated in the march up town hill, and later at the gazebo one young man offered a improvised rap on the power of change.
And then there were the karate students – boys and girls, black and white – who showed off their skills and team-work in a demonstration on the gazebo.
Danny Antoine, a Haitian-American and head teacher at Danny Antoine's Karate Academy, says that for him and his students there is a very direct connection between the practice of martial arts and Dr. King's legacy. He explained that the creed of his school emphasizes treating all people with respect and using karate only for self-defense. In addition to physical discipline, Antoine says that the goal of the school is also to help students build confidence and self-respect.
Antoine said that he often thinks of the how the civil rights movement of the 1960s and Dr. King's work carved the way for those who came later. “If men like that did not stand up in that day and time and did not give their lives, I wouldn't be here teaching these kids, without being thrown in jail or lynched or killed,” he explained.
Most of Antoine’s students are white, but he says they quickly develop a deep bond with him as their teacher and with the other students in the class. Unfortunately, the topic of racism still comes up. Antoine recalled one experience years ago when he received a disturbing phone call at the school. The caller had made many hateful and racist comments. “I got off the phone and had to go back and face all those kids,” he remembered. Rather than ignore the situation, he decided to talk openly about it with his students.
“I told them to take this opportunity, and the same way you treat me, make sure when you see other kids or other people from different backgrounds that people may be making fun of because they look different or they talk different, make sure you do the right thing,” Antoine said. “Like you would stand up for me, stand up for them too,” he remembers telling his students.
“Kids are perceptive,” Antoine remarked, adding that he was happy to be able to participate in the MLK celebrations with them.
Program at United Methodist
The weekend’s celebrations of the MLK holiday actually began on Sunday with the annual program at United Methodist Church. This year’s keynote speaker was Gary Shields, retired principal of Franklin High School and newly-elected member of the Board of Education.
In his remarks, Shields recalled both King as a “messenger” of the historic civil rights movement and King’s “message” which continues to be relevant today. “The legacy of his message [is that it caused] an awakening of the consciousness of social and economic injustices for all races, and not only in America but throughout the world,” Shields said.
Shields reminded his audience that MLK Day was intended to be more than just a remembrance of the man, but as Coretta Scott King, Dr. King's wife, wrote, “The holiday must be substantive as well as symbolic. It must be more than a day of celebration ... Let this holiday be a day of reflection, a day of teaching non-violent philosophy and strategy, a day of getting involved in nonviolent action for social and economic progress.”
Shields noted that the principles which King expressed in his actions and in speeches such as “I Have A Dream” had as their sources in some of the most important documents of American history. He listed the United States Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” “And most of all, The Holy Bible,” Shields added. “These are all intertwined within [King’s] messages, and with this supporting cast who could argue with the message?”
Shields also offered “reflections” on how King and his message had touched him personally through the years, the first being his memory of the day King died while Shields was still a soldier in the Vietnam War:
“On April 4, 1968 a group eight of us, were in the mountains in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Three of the team members were African-Americans, and I can still see the picture of sadness on their faces when we received word of Dr King's assassination ... They sat down and wrapped their arms around their knees ... and bowed their heads in prayer. The five white soldiers, including me, did not comprehend what had happened,” recalled Shields, who added that it wasn't until later that he understood the full significance of the moment. “Now I understand what they understood at that moment: the messenger was gone but the message would never die.”
Shields also remembered two African-American WWII veterans who recently passed away. Charles “Chick” Bryson, who sang at last year's United Methodist program, passed away this year at age 90. Jay Dee Shepherd, who had been Macon County's first African- American on the Board of Commissioners, also passed away recently.
Shields applauded both men for having been “messengers” to the community. Shields, who also participated in Monday’s march, said it was a great honor to be invited to speak at the program.