CHARLES TOWN – The practice of pilgrimage, spiritual life as a journey, has been pulling at my awareness for more than a year now. It’s hardly original, but it is compelling, at least for some folks.
Sunday brought a memorable journey from the Charles Town Library to the Jefferson County Courthouse, and then west on Washington Street, south on Lawrence, and back north on Congress to the Betty J. Roper Auditorium at Wright-Denny School, a walk held in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
This march was part of an ongoing pilgrimage all of us are making from slavery to freedom, from oppression to empowerment, and from bigotry to tolerance. Because of the history of this country, it is a pilgrimage that every American makes, more or less willingly.
As a longtime participant in marches honoring the life and work of Dr. King, it is interesting to see how the engagement in them seems to ebb and flow. There are certain faces one always sees here in Jefferson County: George Rutherford, the chairman of the Jefferson County Chapter of the NAACP; James Alvin Tolbert, the former chairman of the West Virginia NAACP; Janet Jeffries, this year’s emcee for the program at Wright-Denny; Bill Gregg, chairman of the Baha’i Local Spiritual Assembly of Jefferson County; Gwenny Roper, singer, Harpers Ferry park ranger and activist; and Velma Twyman, a retired schoolteacher and active member of the NAACP.
Attendance varies widely from year to year, and this year Rutherford, Gregg, Jeffries and Virginia Graf determined that the symbolic march would bring out more people, and have a more diverse program.
The march and the program to follow would honor the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation as well as the ministry and witness of Dr. King. Organizers based the program on the 12 inscriptions on the Martin Luther King monument on the Mall in Washington, D.C. They included lots of music, and most of all, they included children reading Dr. King’s words.
Graf prepared a handbill that explained the plan for the march and program, and included visual references to the Emancipation Proclamation, the second inauguration of Barack Obama, the King monument, the Memphis march, and the March on Washington, which happened 50 years ago this August.
Gregg circulated the handbill and the quotes from Dr. King’s monument, and worked tirelessly, meeting with civic groups, ministerial associations and church congregations, to encourage participation.
The work and the publicity paid off. More than 100 people assembled at the Charles Town Library, and walked first to the courthouse, where local historian Bob O’Connor, dressed in a Lincoln-esque black suit, read the Emancipation Proclamation, receiving enthusiastic applause from the crowd.
The police escort led us across George Street, and west on Washington and passersby came off the sidewalks and joined us, continuing as we turned onto Lawrence. My friend and colleague Pastor Joanna Marceron marched the entire distance, despite still being in recovery from back surgery.
Tiny kids and senior citizens marched together, and Rutherford and Gregg ran along the sides of the march, Rutherford keeping us together with his bullhorn, and Gregg shouting encouragement and snapping pictures as he moved through our ragged but enthusiastic ranks. The waiting crowd gathered at the auditorium swelled the ranks to more than 200 people.
At the school, those who made the march received applause as they entered the auditorium, named for a beloved teacher.
Truth to tell: on April 4, 1968, driving from Chicago to Columbia, Mo., where I attended university, I pulled off Interstate 70 because I could not see to drive. Crying as the news about the death of Dr. King came non-stop, I then could not have envisioned a world in which an auditorium in an integrated school would be named for an African-American teacher, let alone a United States in which an African-American could be elected president.
Sitting in the Betty J. Roper Auditorium as the little children read the words of Dr. King and the Wright-Denny chorus sang “Let There Be Peace On Earth,” I looked back over the 45 years since Dr. King’s death.
I remembered the demonstrations in my university town, when white people who attended the protests of Dr. King’s assassination were threatened with hanging by the KKK. (The things the group threatened to do to blacks are not printable here.)
I remembered renting an apartment in Cicero, Ill., where our Baha’i friends who were black felt like they were taking their lives in their hands just to come there.
I remember coming to Jefferson County and discovering that the newspaper —this newspaper — did not print the obituaries of black citizens, and, when they began to be printed, referred to the deceased by last name only, not granting them the honorific of Mr. or Mrs. or Miss.
I heard stories from Mrs. Ollie Lightfoot Tolbert of trying to live as a professional in an environment in which blacks were seen as inferior. “We were treated like children, called by our first names, but we had to show respect to white people no matter what,” she said.
I also saw things begin to change, in this county and in the rest of West Virginia in no small part as a result of relentless, courageous work Mrs. Tolbert’s son, James A. Tolbert, did to achieve equality in education, in hiring, and in other aspects of our common life.
I heard stories from my friend, Harpers Ferry educator Ruby Reeler, about the switch from segregated to integrated schools, and the changes that she, George V. King, Mary Doakes and other educators saw from the inside of the system as James Tolbert, Rutherford and others filed lawsuits and carried petitions to make the system work for all students, not just white ones.
It’s been a long pilgrimage, and I have been grateful to have a tiny part in it, most often as an observer and reporter. It is an honor to march with black people whose achievements have been gained in part with the blood of martyrs, as well as with constant legal work and careful planning for the future. It seems that we live in a country in which change does not come without the shedding of blood.
Despite the many changes since 1968, we still have a lot to learn. May we learn the new lessons in the peaceful world Dr. King envisioned.
– The Rev. Georgia DuBose is the priest at St. John’s Episopal Church in Harpers Ferry.