LEWISBURG (WVDN) – It was a nice, warm day for a march, but organizers of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration warned participants to not get too comfortable.
The drive to get out of one’s comfort zone and commit to service was the Jan. 16 celebration’s theme. The theme is based on King’s quote, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”
Over 200 citizens gathered in front of the county courthouse to hear speakers Chris Winston and Lewisburg Mayor Beverly White. Winston, who serves on the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Planning Committee, opened the celebration in prayer, and White read a proclamation declaring the week of January 16 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Week.
White told the gathered crowd that Lewisburg had been named the most inclusive city in West Virginia in 2021. White said that she looked “prayerfully” to West Virginia being the most inclusive state one day.
“We just have to work with our legislators to pass the Fairness Act and the Crown Act, and when that’s done, everyone will feel that they are included in this state. But know that right here, right now and for always, you’re welcome and included in the city of Lewisburg,” she said.
The Fairness Act seeks to add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in the state’s Human Rights Acts and the Fair Housing Act. The Crown Act prohibits discrimination based on hair traits commonly associated with race and people of color.
Once the opening remarks were made, the crowd, led by MLK Day organizers, and children who had been invited to the front of the crowd, began their march from the courthouse to Lewisburg United Methodist Church, singing the Mavis Staples song, “Turn Me Around.”
Following the march, celebrants were treated to a lunch catered by Blue Moon Bagels and served by High Rocks Educational Corporation staff and AmeriCorps members before moving into the church sanctuary for the program that celebrated King’s legacy while imploring those present to continue to serve their community.
Students from High Rocks Academy recited a poem; student essay winners Alahni Viney and Meryl Wadsworth recited their essays honoring King; and the Resurrecting Praise Community Choir, featuring members from White Sulphur Springs, Covington, Va., and Clifton Forge, Va., sang for the audience.
Local singer Andre Williams’ performance of “The Blessing” was a highlight of the event, as his falsetto refrains brought choir and audience members to their feet.
Poet, journalist and activist Crystal Good was the keynote speaker, and Good spoke about the need to not sanitize King’s history of nonviolent protest, pointing to his often-quoted “I have a dream” speech.
“Like my friend, Rev. Bradley, down in Logan, who uses his platform to tweet and post said, ‘Rev. King was a radical, a revolutionary, a prophet to America,” she quoted her friend. “‘He was hated by most of society and eventually executed in 1969 at the age of 39, because he stood against the exploitation of power.’
“I stand in unity with so many folks who demand that we stop sanitizing King’s legacy,” Good said.
“Dr. King’s message is always of intersectional unity,” she said, noting that when black people, poor white people and LGBTQ people gather for a common cause, it can spell trouble for those who seek to remain in power and maintain white supremacy.
“King’s legacy is not about sharing a quote or even participating in a symbolic walk. It is action, moving in love, for the equitable and fair treatment of all mankind.”
The King celebration culminated in a special recognition of Steve Rutledge, a community organizer who served on the Lewisburg Martin Luther King Jr. Day Committee for many years and was unable to participate this year due to being in grave health.
Speaker Wanda Johnson read about Rutledge’s history in the Civil Rights movement, beginning in 1963 at Tugaloo Southern Christian College in Jackson, Miss., where he was one of three white students. Rutledge was photographed in the famous Woolworth’s sit-in, where he and his fellow students were attacked by a mob of white men. During his time at Tugaloo, Rutledge also worked with Mississippi NAACP Executive Secretary Medgar Evers and was jailed three times.
Rutledge had led a protest in Jackson the day Evers was assassinated, she said, and the day of Evers’s funeral, when a protest began to grow out of control, Rutledge drove King to the airport when his family began to fear for his safety.
Rutledge came to West Virginia in the 1970s where he worked as a labor organizer. He also worked for the Greenbrier County Housing Authority advocating for fair and decent housing for people of all income levels and as an investigator for the West Virginia Human Rights Commission.
Rutledge was quoted as saying, “For me, the holiday honoring the life and beliefs of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the only one that was created in our lifetime to place equality, justice and peace at the top of our list of what is important. It is a day on, not off, because it gives each of us a chance to unite with one or more other persons to make something better — it could be our family, our school, our job or our community.”
Author/editor’s disclosure and note: Steve Rutledge is the father-in-law of Sarah Mansheim, author of this article and editor of The West Virginia Daily News. Rutledge passed away in his sleep the morning of Jan. 17.