January 15 and 16 of 2012 shall be two beautiful days of our celebration of unity in our community because we have joined hands to form a cross to help make positive changes in our civil rights movement. We have marched forward to a brighter future as Mississippians and Americans.
We owe much to another courageous American, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who had “a dream of a promised land from the mole hills of Mississippi” to this new day. We honor his real birthday, and we celebrate his national holiday this weekend. May I take you back to another January of 1998? Let’s look at a painting I did on an 18X24 canvas. I invite you to experience what I saw that day on the streets of my hometown, Starkville.
Hear the marching footsteps of people as they begin marching across Highway 82, later renamed Martin Luther King Drive, toward Main Street. See the movement in the painting. Can you actually feel the excitement as people shuffle their feet toward the Oktibbeha County Courthouse? Suddenly the lone voice of a man walking along begins the song “We Shall Overcome.” Then another man loudly says, “Amen!” There is the vibration of change in the air.
This early afternoon was cloudy and cold. We felt that it might rain. You shivered, and your bones felt like this was a typical January day. Deep in your bones, another shiver came over your body as you marched to the rhythm of the loud voices singing. Behind you there was a soft, soothing hum instead of the words of the two songs. Your eyes glanced to the gray sky, and you saw slightly the sun changing the gray to a light blue. Maybe the sunshine will decide to open her eyes and wink at us after all, making our march down Main Street brighter.
Look at the faces of each person I captured on my canvas. Each is a person has a name, and each is important as he or she makes a contribution as an American. Look at the short, medium and tall people. See their expressions of happiness, sadness and even surprise as we march along together.
Look at all the colors of their clothes. The entire painting looks as if I have taken every color from my palette and thrown it on my canvas. An artist uses a palette filled with squirts of paint to mix and place the colors on the canvas. A palette I use is usually an oval, thin piece of wood with an another oval hole to place your thumb to hold the top part your arm, which becomes a makeshift table to dip in the paint placing the colors onto the canvas.
See the shades of red, green, orange, purple, brown, blue, turquoise, pink, gold, white, black, gray, stripes and plaids. Look at pigtails, straight hair, curly hair, lots of hair and bald heads. See hats, caps and bare heads. Look down at feet wearing dress shoes, loafers, tennis shoes and boots. It is as if the whole world is walking, singing and praying for change in Starkville and our nation.
Now look closely at the beginning marchers, and you will find your friends and neighbors. Squint and see the ROTC Starkville High School cadet in his green uniform. His has shiny black boots and proudly wears white gloves with his military cap. Our American flag blows gently in the wind. The colors give a bright and hopeful feeling while swaying in the winter’s breeze.
Justin Issac, a young boy, carries the framed portrait of Martin Luther King tightly, and his aunt Dorothy Issac, a leader for today and every MLK march for years, is dressed in her 1998 red tee shirt walking behind her nephew. My daughter, Elizabeth Davis Williams, wife of Stephen and mother of 6-year-old Mallory Ann and 8-month-old Elle, became the second generation to march with me that day. I am proud that Elizabeth joined me that day as mother and daughter.
See: Ava Moore; Dr. Douglas Conner, a leader for many years in Starkville’s Civil Rights Movement; Dr. John Marszelek, a MSU historian and head of the MSU U.S. Grant Collection at Mitchell Memorial Library, and Jeanne Marszelek, his wife; Father Michael O’Brien, priest at St. Joseph Catholic Church; Monica Banks, Oktibbeha County Chancery Clerk for many terms; Brother Rogers, a lifetime civil rights leader with the federal John C. Stennis program; Pattye Archer, former editor of Starkville Daily News and now with the Mitchell Memorial Library; Lawyer and alderman Roy A. Perkins; Methodist minister Rev. Bernard Crump; Henry Lee Issac; Assistant Police Chief John Outlaw stands on the far right watching and keeping us in line.
Look closely at the child catching a ride on the back of his daddy’s shoulders. He will be the next generation to march when he gets older. The torch will pass to him. Look for the homemade tiny banner, and you’ll see the powerful words “God loves us all” carried by a marcher high on a stick that towers above. We keep singing “We Shall Overcome.”
We have come by viewing my painting from 1998 to 2011. The first year I marched was 1995, and for the next seven years I marched every year.
Three years ago, I returned to participate in the MLK March, and this time I marched with my three-year-old granddaughter, Mallory Ann, who made the third generation of women in my family to march. Participating in the MLK march has been one of the highlights of my life.
We celebrate the progress we have made in Starkville as we think of the African-Americans who serve our city and county government. We have a larger number of African-American students enrolled at MSU than at any of the state’s major universities. We work to attract more minority professors to MSU. Integration went smoothly.
We are proud that we have equal rights. Life has improved in the last 20 years. We can all sit in restaurants and enjoy meals together. We can go to the same theaters and enjoy a movie together.
Last year Frank was invited to be on a panel discussion in the auditorium at the Leo Seal addition of the College of Business & Industry at MSU. We watched a documentary about Civil Rights in Mississippi, Alabama and the South. I lived through the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi.
When the documentary was over we cried because it was all true. My people have lived here for eight generations, and Frank grew up in the tiny town of Money in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. The documentary hurt us that night.
We wiped tears from our eyes and walked into the sunlight right before night had begun to fall on the brick walkway in front of Perry Cafeteria. We ran into three beautiful MSU female students.
They were from different tiny Mississippi towns, and they were in the College of Engineering. Frank and I never had class with an African-American student in school because we went to school before integration. Change happened, and we are a better nation.
It took in 1995 a breakfast served by the Race Relations Team of the Starkville Chamber of Commerce, and it took an invitation from Father Michael O’Brien, Priest of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church for everyone in our community to share a breakfast with The Knights of Columbus preparing the breakfast. 100 guests showed up, and look now at the annual MLK Breakfast at the Colvard Student Union. There will not be an empty seat as MSU President Mark Keenum welcomes us to break bread together.
Tommy Stevenson, head of Diversity and Equity, will head up this breakfast. Our Greater Starkville Development Partnership joins MSU to make this annual event possible. My favorite Mississippi governor, William Winter, will deliver the address for the breakfast. What an iconic gentleman is Gov. Winter. We are in for a treat to hear him.
The march and the breakfast on Martin Luther King Day in Starkville are our two important traditions.
It took a man named Martin with his non-violent approach to give us change. He gave his life for this cause. We continue to ensure equal rights for all. We have a great Constitution, and all citizens must share the same civil rights in our great nation.
We’ve come a long way, and we have miles to go before we sleep, as my favorite poet Robert Frost would say.
Fourteen years ago we looked back as we now look forward to a better community. Though we are a tiny southern city, we believe that in Christ there is no east or west, in Him no South or North but one great fellowship of love throughout the world.
Dear God, may we continue to keep within our hearts and environs unity, and today we join hands to form a cross. If you turn this painting upside down, see and feel the heavy cross that we all bear for our fellow man. Amen.
Carole Elizabeth McReynolds Davis is a local artist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org .