The meaning of the annual Dr. Martin Luther King federal holiday was not ignored in Apalachicola Monday.
It was brought home at the Armory in the speaking of words and in the laying on of hands, the dramatic retelling of a story about freedom given birth to through religious oratory, political persuasion and other non-violent means.
The legal and social aspects of these pages in the nation’s history, particularly in the southern states within that nation, were brought forth in a historical overview delivered in the keynote speech by Dr. Isaac Neal, of Columbus, Ga., a former Franklin County School principal in the early days of the county’s consolidation effort.
“It’s good to be home. This is home for me,” said Neal, after he and his wife were introduced by Mrs. Rosa Tolliver.
She described him as “a compassionate and sincere man,” an educator who not only earned bachelor, master and doctoral degrees, and worked for 37 years in various positions in education from custodian to district administrator, but retired as a master sergeant in the Air Force.
Neal offered a historical perspective on what he called “a movement for citizenship” for African-Americans.
“Dr. King came from a culture of being denied,” he said. “At the time the Constitution was passed, it did not address African- American people.”
Neal went on to outline the roles of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery; the 14th Amendment, which ensured citizenship, due process and equal protection under the law; and the 15ht Amendment, which said all people, including those held previously in slavery, had the right to vote.
Neal said that while the will of the Union had been victorious in the legal realm, “the other area fought in was the political arena, which the Confederacy won.” He said that Reconstruction in the South had led to “separate but equal,” and a prevailing philosophy that “you stay in your place.”
It was here that Neal interjected a comment on his “babies,” those children whose education he influenced during his tenure as principal.
“Keep your head up,” he said. “No matter what they say, you are somebody.”
Neal recounted details of King’s early childhood, and how after studying at Morehouse College, and later earning a doctorate from Boston University, the 26-year-old Baptist preacher in Atlanta was called to assist a church in Montgomery, Ala. struggling with issues surrounding a bus boycott.
“All of a sudden this woman named Rosa Parks decided her feet hurt,” he said. “Martin Luther King had leadership thrust upon him.”
Neal chronicled King’s career from 1955 to 1963, joking that being refused seating at whites-only restaurants had given rise to the invention of the drive-thru.
Neal wrapped up his remarks by noting that economic freedom, highlighted by a Poor People’s March on the nation’s capital, had been King’s rallying cry.
“Dr. King was out front. He forced America to confront herself,” Neal said.
The more than two-hour program concluded with a dramatic laying on of hands as part of a closing ceremony to honor Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson.
Bishop Robert Davis introduced that “mayoral honor ceremony” by saying that on the 27th anniversary of the King holiday’s observance, and the second inauguration of President Barack Obama, it was fitting to honor Johnson, Apalachicola’s first black elected mayor.
Nearly a dozen clergy, from throughout the city, came forward to offer praise of the mayor. First of the pastors to speak was Horace Solomon, of New Life Tabernacle By the Sea, followed by Barry Hand, from Mount Zion Baptist Church; Clifford Williams, from Apalachicola First Born Church of The Living God; Rene Williams, from Fellowship Church of Praise Ministries; and Martha Harris, from Trinity Episcopal Church.
Each praised the broad and generous service of the mayor, and his dedication to the city, just as did the last four pastors to speak: L.D. Martin, of the Love & Worship Center; Themo Patriotis, of the Apalachicola United Methodist Church; Dr. John Sink, former pastor of Atlanta’s largest Methodist church; and David Walker, from Covenant Word, who invoked the direct prayer for God’s guidance to grace the actions of Johnson, now and in the future.
The celebration event began with a processional of the clergy filing into the Armory. Also entering formally were city and county officials, who included Johnson, Superintendent Nina Marks, County Commissioner Noah Lockley, School Board Member Teresa Ann Martin, and Apalachicola City Commissioners Frank Cook and Brenda Ash, City Administrator Betty Taylor-Webb, City Attorney Pat Floyd and Police Chief Bobby Varnes.
The opening prayer came from Elder James Pugh, dressed in his sheriff’s office uniform, and followed by a Scripture reading from Elder Roderick Robinson, from Isaiah 60: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
Greetings and gratitude came from event organizer Mrs. Dolores Hayward Croom, who then introduced three African-American Florida Highway Patrolman, who were seated in places of honor at the front.
Mrs. Sheila White-Martin, from Love & Worship Center, served as mistress of ceremony. “We’re living King’s legacy, making a career of humanity,” she said.
SWAT (Students Working Against Tobacco) students led the pledge to the American flag and to the Christian flag. “Life Every Voice and Sing” often called the Negro National Anthem, was then sung by Mrs. Angeline Stanley.
As King’s “I Have A Dream” speech sounded through the speakers, R. Damien Davis portrayed the words in mime.
Covenant Word Christian Center provided an interview of retired Apalachicola school teacher Lorine Banks, on her memories of taking part in a march with Dr. King in 1965, when she was a senior at Alabama State University, a historically black university in Montgomery, Alabama.
Interviewed by her daughter, Harolyn Walker on the fictional “Father’s Heart” television show, Banks began by noting that “black people didn’t always have the right to vote.”
She described how there was excitement in the City of St. Jude Historic District of Montgomery, Ala. was powerful on March 24, 1965, when voting rights marchers camped for their last night on their path to the capital. That night a "Stars for Freedom" rally was held, with singers Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Sammy Davis Jr. all performing.
Banks said that a judge had said only 300 people could be on a two-lane highway, but when it widened to four lanes the crowd had gathered to 25,000 people. She described a mixed, often hostile reaction from onlookers. “To me it took everything not to say anything at the words used,” she said. “Dr. King was a man of non-violence; he practiced what he preached.”
After a performance of “My God is Awesome” by singers from Mount Zion Missionary Baptist, Stella Bryant, speaking on behalf of Sheriff Mike Mock, then read an impassioned statement. Included was her announcement that she had been promoted as the first African-American to become professional standards investigator for the sheriff’s office.
Jathan Martin and Company, and Robert and Jacqulyn Davis, all performed leading up to Neal’s remarks.
The event closed with expressions from Apostle Shirley White, who has stepped down after organizing the King event for several years, and the singing of Steve Wonder’s birthday song that helped give rise to the holiday.
Following a celebration motorcade, dinner from A.J.’s Restaurant was served.