Monday’s 32nd annual Dr. Martin Luther King Birthday Celebration heard a message of love from a man of war, a general’s inspiring summons to rally against the foe.
“As an ole soldier, I want to ‘skip straight to the chase,’ as they say in the old TV Westerns. There is but one strategy that works in times like these,” said Maj. General James E. Donald, now retired and living on St. George Island, product of 33 years in the Army and then another decade with the Georgia Department of Corrections, including five years as its commissioner.
“My military training tells me that when we are surrounded or encircled by life issues and challenges, we must Attack!” he said, using as a focal point Apalachicola City Commissioner Jimmy Elliott, veteran of Vietnam and two wars in the Middle East, who sat with other elected officials in the front rows.
Donald’s call to arms - the arms of love and unity wielded against forces of what he termed “self-centered individualism” - echoed well beyond his experiences of a battalion commander in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and later a deputy chief of operations in the Pacific.
His rallying cry hearkened back to 1968, two years after his older brother Cleveland Donald, Jr, earned a degree in history to become the University of Mississippi’s second black graduate.
“Maybe you remember where you were on that tragic day” when King was assassinated in Memphis, Donald asked the audience. “I was at Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi trying to make good on Dr. King’s dream. Ole Miss, a place where only a few years earlier as James Meredith integrated the university, was ground zero for the clash that became known as the Battle of Oxford, that left wo dead and 300 injured.”
Donald’s role as one of the first black students to attend Ole Miss came after his growing up as “a little ole country boy from Mississippi,” as he had the man who introduced him, Robert Davis, describe him.
“From Newton, Mississippi and St. John’s Baptist Church,” said Donald. “Mama sang tenor, Daddy sang bass and Aunt Lula Mae had the sweetest voice in the choir.”
After thanking the organizers and audience, praising the community for 34 years holding a King Day celebration, Donald recounted the highlights of King’s life and accomplishments, including a story he learned after becoming Georgia’s first African-American commissioner over the state’s correctional system.
The story was how in 1959, King was arrested and sentenced for an alleged unpaid traffic violation, and was driven alone inside the back of a police van the 200 miles from Atlanta to the infamous Georgia State Prison at Reidsville, only to have a young U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy intervene to get him released, an act that, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, helped swing a tight presidential race in favor of John F. Kennedy.
But in his commanding tones, Donald then directed his remarks to the day’s theme, “Unity – Don’t just dream it, live it!”
“I am certain that if Dr. King were here that he would be appalled at the lack of unity in our country on a variety levels,” he said. “He would be concerned about bickering, infighting, finger pointing and divisions along party lines.
“But while the country seemingly languishes over divisions at the national level, I believe Dr. King would be more concerned with the fact that we are seeking political solutions for moral problems,” Donald said.
“No doubt, our government will survive this current political crisis. (But) the moral crisis we face in this country cannot be so easily dismissed,” he said. “There is a more insidious challenge that we face in what I would describe as ‘our battle to win the hearts and minds of our young people,’ a battle being waged right here in our backyard.”
Donald said that unless the nation unites to address its problems head-on, “we as a people--black or white, irrespective of ethnic group or gender--will not live the dream.
“If Dr. King was here, he would be appalled at the plight of our young people and the breakdown of the family unit,”
Donald recounted statistics that indicated opioid deaths now exceed the number killed by automobile accidents, as well as all combat operations in the military. He said that more than three-fourths of the men and women under supervision-- prisoners, probationers, and parolees-- when he served as the prison system commissioner were using drugs, selling drugs or in a drug-induced stupor when they committed their crimes.
“The systemic causes included that 75 percent of those entering the corrections system do not have a high school degree or GED. Remember kids who cannot read at a third grade level are four times more likely to not finish high school,” he said.
The retired general stressed that the trend towards a breakdown of the family unit, and the rise in suicides and divorce, can be found right here in Franklin County. “Today in our own community, the lack of meaning work and a suitable place to stay places extraordinary pressures on the family unit,” he said.
Admits to a ‘drug’ problem
Donald offered three-pronged advice to parents and grandparents wanting to keep their children and grandchildren out of the prison system. “Give them the drug problem I had! Don’t buy them anything! And, give them the blessing!” he advised.
“Let me describe my drug problem,” Donald continued. “On Sundays, when I was a child, I was drug to Sunday school, drug to 11 o’clock church service, and drug back in the evening for Baptist Training Union, and sometimes back on Wednesday nights for prayer services.
“The lesson is simple, we are a Judeo-Christian society and our laws are based upon the 10 Commandments, regardless of the politics of it all,” he said. It therefore seems logical that this is a great way to inculcate values in our children that help them to make wise choices about what’s right or wrong when you are not there. Remember the scripture in Proverbs 22:6, ‘Training up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.’
“I was certainly less than perfect growing up, but my parents took me to church,” Donald said. “I can still remember my Mom’s counsel to me when I left to attend Ole Miss in 1967. ‘Son, remember, when you have to make a tough decision between right or wrong, just listen to the voice down inside of you and it will tell you what you already know.’ I worry that without taking our children to church, that voice will not speak loud enough.”
He urged young people to avoid drugs, and to “stand for what’s right when no one is watching.”
Donald urged parents to enable their children to share in the purchase of luxuries. “They need to get a job and at least pay half. Without skin in the game they will not learn to value money, hard work and responsibility,” he said. “We must train our son, daughters and grandchildren to work. Did we forget that work is a ‘learned behavior?’ We must teach our sons and daughters to work. Some of us are not too old to remember what it meant when our fathers put that wagon in the cotton field. It simply meant we were not coming home until it was filled, and indeed, filled several times.”
Lastly, he encouraged parents to give children “the blessing” by providing them with unconditional love. “Tell your son or daughter you love them often. Let them hear you say it. Boys need to hear it as often as girls,” Donald said. “It is so important that your children fill wanted and enjoy the protections that accrue to them as part of the family. Remind them that their life has value, and that they are put on this earth for a purpose. Also, remind them that God does not make any trash, and that he will show them the way to a more abundant life.”
Donald closed by citing a scene from the movie ”Chariots of Fire,” in which the Rev. Eric Liddell was a missionary to China during the Paris 1924 Olympics where he won a gold medal in track.
“Eric, why do you run so much? You are a missionary, his wife asked. His reply was profound, “God has given me the talent to run and when I run I feel His pleasure,” he said.
“We cannot afford to sit on the sideline and watch so much of what we have worked so hard be destroyed,” Donald said. “We have the time and the resources, if nothing more, than to embrace the future of our children.”
On Tuesday morning, Donald spoke at a King Day assembly at Franklin County Schools, attended by all the district’s schoolkids.
Monday’s program opened with the presentation of colors by the Port St., Joe High School NJROTC, followed by the leading of the Pledge of Allegiance by Neilan Sneed and the singing of the National Anthem by Angeline Stanley.
The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Gospel choir then sang the Negro National Anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” followed by a prayer by Franklin County sophomore Eli Whaley.
In his remarks Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson said that “Although the winds of change have heightened the amount of hatred, bitterness and division that’s now commonplace throughout our country, and although we now live in what sometimes seems like an abnormal and chaotic world, I’m encouraged that Dr. King, a man of faith expounded upon the teachings of Christ.
“I’m encouraged that these teachings are just as relevant today as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow and that despite the status quo, we can still love each other,” he said.
Franklin County senior Beyla Walker offered words on Dr. King, followed by a video presentation of Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream “speech.
Following Donald’s remark, Elinor Mount-Simmons, vice chair of the King Day advisory board, presented a community service award to Erica Head, activity coordinator at the Holy Family Senior Center; an economic empowerment award to Harrison “Bud”” Jones, founder and CEO of Harrison Stucco; a humanitarian award to Dr. Alison Thompson, founded and CEO of Third Wave Volunteers, a group that has been active in hurricane recovery in the Panhandle; and a lifetime achievement award to Donald.
Dolores Hayward Croom, a member of the advisory board, thanked several people in the audience for their help with the program, and James Pugh closed it with a moment of prayer.
Members of the audience then marched to the courthouse steps, where the song “We Shall Overcome” was voiced, Pastor Shirley White, from the Love Center, offered prayer; and trolley rides were offered around town.