WEST JEFFERSON —In recognition of the 52 years that have followed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” the Ashe County Arts Council hosted a special presentation on Monday, Jan. 18.
“This is a day of coming together,” Connie Hardison, President of the Ashe County Arts Council Board of Directors, said. “It’s a day to share together and it’s a day for dreaming.”
This is the 13th year the Arts Council has held the event that helps mark the life and work of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He delivered his iconic speech on Aug. 28, 1963 to an audience of more than 250,000 on the steps on the Lincoln Memorial.
“It’s a reason and an opportunity for the community to come together for a night centered through the arts to reflect, share and find connections so that we can work together to make a difference in this world,” Jane Lonon, Ashe County Arts Council’s Executive Director, said.
The presentation featured essays, speeches and tributes highlighting the message of King and his teachings of peace, unity and equality in our society. The program also included readings that highlighted achievements by African Americans in the history of civil rights in the nation by Chris Arvidson, Sharon Kasel and Horace Thompson.
Mike Wiley, an actor and playwright, was the night’s featured performer.
Wiley has spent the last decade traveling across the nation to bring educational theatre that focuses on key events and figures in African-American history to young audiences.
On Monday night, Wiley performed an excerpt from a play about the story of Emmett Till, an African-American teenager who was lynched in Mississippi after reportedly flirting with a white women.
“It’s perhaps, for me, the strongest play I do, the most powerful piece that I do and the most tragic piece that I do,” Wiley said.
Wiley noted that many African-Americans, including Rosa Parks, were inspired by the story of Emmett Till which helped act as a catalyst to the African-American Civil Rights Movement.
“You have to know that many of those individuals didn’t just wake up one morning and say I want to be the first to do this. It was something that spurred them on, something that said ‘no more, I am going to change this,’ and for many of them, it was the story of Emmett Till,” Wiley said.
Wiley also visited Ashe County Middle School and Ashe County High School this week to do a performance centered around Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League Baseball.
“That arts education component is so important for us to be able to give that message to our young people to let them see those historical figures through dramatic presentation to impact their lives so that hopefully they can become that next generation to make a difference,” Lonon said.
“We’ve come a long way”
According to Diane Bryan, she grew up in the 1950s and remembers what it was like before and after the Civil Right Movement as an African-American.
“I know what it was like to see the colored only signs, going to the movies and having to sit in the balcony and desiring to sit on the floor with everybody else,” Bryan said.
Bryan said she also remembers ordering sandwiches at the local drug store where she grew up but not being allowed to eat inside.
Whenever integration began, Bryan said she can still recall what she ate while sitting inside that very same drug store for the first time.
“I ordered a toasted tuna sandwich with a side of potato chips and a cherry cola,” Bryan said. “I will never forget it. It was just those simple things that we don’t even talk about anymore.”
For Reverend Silas Hart, who gave the invocation during Monday’s program, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an important time for all members of the community to come together.
“It’s a day of hope,” Hart said. “It’s a day we can all stand as one and stand with integrity.”
Hart reminds that King stood for all people no matter the race and in today’s world, people should consider what they are doing to continue making a difference.
“We sing the song ‘We Shall Overcome’ but my question is, what are we doing to overcome?” Hart said. “Are we showing more brotherly love as we should or do we still have the “I’ll sit in the back of the bus” mentality?”
According to Hart, King’s message is still as relevant today as ever.
“We’ve come a long way from the Martin Luther King era. We’ve come a long way but we have a longer way to go,” Hart said. “It doesn’t stop just because we celebrate today. It’s really the beginning.”
Hannah Myers can be reached at 336-846-7164 or on Twitter @cmedia_hmyers