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“… And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today! …”
Retired teacher Bettye Webb-Hayes holds onto MLK’s 1963 life-changing message of love, humanity
Bettye Webb-Hayes’ husband Purvis sometimes teases her about her tendency to pick up trash left on the sidewalk or to tidy up scattered paper towels before she exits the bathroom at Walmart, asking: “Did you make that mess?”
Of course the answer is no, but the retired music teacher finds it important to take time to make even a small difference. “I always want to leave a place better than I found it,” she explains. “I always want to do what I can to make things better.”
She traces much of that guiding philosophy to the summer of 1963, when as a 22-year-old spending the summer in Washington, D.C., with family, she joined in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom along with about 300 worshippers from her aunt’s Episcopal church.
Webb-Hayes had decided just a month earlier to take part in the gathering. It was a cause she believed in, she liked the idea of a peaceful protest and she’d felt a special connection to one of its chief organizers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ever since she’d been invited as a 9-year-old to sing for the then-unknown civil rights leader during a service at Stewart Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church when he visited her hometown of Macon, Ga.
Still, Webb-Hayes says, she didn’t expect for King’s words that Wednesday to alter her life. But the 34-year-old minister’s message – delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the searing heat amid a crowd of some 250,000 demonstrators – struck her.
“It was almost like listening to God in person,” she recalled. “What he was really talking about that day was the need to love one another,” she said. “His message was all about love and humanity.”
She’d felt somewhat adrift since the death of her mother when she was just 15, said Webb-Hayes, who would go on to spend years as a music teacher at the historic Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School in D.C., even getting to know President Jimmy Carter when his daughter Amy attended the school starting in 1977.
“I had a sadness with me after my mother passed, but that day, when I heard him speak, something changed for me,” she said. “He really did have that kind of effect on people. It gave me a new perspective on life.”
For Webb-Hayes, King’s vision of a better life for the nation’s citizens got her thinking about how she might use her talents and energy to help make life better for others.
“He was saying, ‘Don’t focus on yourself – focus on the whole world,’ ’’ she said.
Sunday morning at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Harpers Ferry, Webb-Hayes asked the congregation’s minister, the Rev. Georgia DuBose, to include a favorite reading of hers – the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi – as part of the service:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
“To me, that just says it all – that’s what Dr. King was all about and that’s what I’ve tried to make my life about,” Webb-Hayes explained following the service.
DuBose and others in the congregation say that in addition to Webb-Hayes’ works as the church’s organist and music director for the past eight years, she also regularly brightens the lives of church members and others in the community through thoughtful acts such as remembering young people’s birthdays and other special events and by sending thank-you notes for work she notices them doing for others.
During her 32 years teaching in Washington, Webb-Hayes’ student choirs at Stevens and at Bancroft Elementary were invited to perform at a long list of high-profile events including the opening session of the Democratic National Convention, TV’s “Good Morning America,” at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library for the city of D.C.’s formal observance of his birthday, at the Kennedy Center, for the National Children’s Defense Fund at the Warner Theatre and on the Mall.
After moving to Ranson, she spent 13 years as a substitute teacher until she retired again last year. “I taught at least once at every school in Jefferson County,” she said.
Whether teaching or outside the classroom, Webb-Hayes said she was always careful to act as a role model for the young people she encountered. “I called my students ‘Miss’ or ‘Mister’ – I believe respect is a two-way street,” she said. “And that was true for our school custodian or anyone else. I believe in treating people right.”
Webb-Hayes, who has a son, 40, a daughter, 42, and an 8-year-old grandson in D.C., says people often mistakenly believe only African-Americans took part in the March on Washington that historic day a half-century ago.
“It wasn’t just black people – it was black and white – because Dr. King’s message was for blacks and whites, for all those who were disadvantaged,” she said.
She’s glad that King’s pro-love message is firmly in the spotlight again, thanks to today’s anniversary.
“Our society needs Dr. King’s message more than ever,” she said. “People need to know someone cares about them and to be treated with kindness. Race has nothing to do with it. People are people. To me, that’s what Dr. King was talking about – we need to love each other and help each other whenever and however we can.”
Five decades after King’s history-making speech, Webb-Hayes said she doesn’t find herself frustrated by examples of racism or society’s other problems.
“I absolutely don’t get discouraged,” she said. “I just do what I do and try to make a difference where I can.”