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Hundreds of Wilsonians joined their voices in prayer, song and the spoken word Monday morning to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
The 24th annual Ecumenical Prayer Breakfast at Darden Alumni Center gathered citizens from all walks of life — from students and a congressman to law enforcement officials and retired educators — to remember King’s teachings and to go out inspired to action.
Otis Sherrod sat through much of the morning’s program with 3-year-old Chase Speight on his lap. At his side was 10-year-old Antonio Rouse. Sherrod has taken Antonio, his great-grandson, to the event for several years now. This was Chase’s first time accompanying his great-grandfather.
Sherrod said it’s important to him that the boys learn the history.
There were many opportunities Monday morning to learn more about King and the civil rights movement.
U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield began his day at home in Wilson but had a busy schedule across the district. He reminded his audience that King was supposed to be in Wilson on April 4, 1968, in an effort to encourage African-Americans to register to vote. Milton Fitch Sr. invited him here, Butterfield said. But a few days before his scheduled visit here, King sent a telegram saying he had been called to Memphis, Tennessee, to the sanitation workers’ strike.
“And all of you know the rest of the story,” Butterfield said. “That’s where his life ended.”
Butterfield said we are now facing another moral and political crisis, “similar but different from the challenges Dr. King faced.”
“In his criticism of the Vietnam War, Dr. King said, ‘A time comes when silence is betrayal.’ We cannot, we must not, be silent on the trajectory of our national government. There are forces at work in this country to dismantle our communities in ways that you cannot imagine.”
He said the country faces huge challenges.
“Don’t get consumed with the misconduct of 45. Be concerned, maybe angry, but do not be consumed with the conduct of 45,” he said, referring to President Donald Trump.
“While we are dwelling on the president’s behavior, he, they, are packing the courts with neoconservative judges who will have lifetime appointments. They are passing laws that will harm our communities for generations to come.”
Butterfield urged the audience members to be fully engaged in the issues of the day, almost 50 years after King’s assassination.
“We must not sit down,” he said. “Silence is not an option.”
‘We understood the dream’
Guest speaker Bobbie Jones is mayor of Princeville, the oldest town incorporated by African-Americans in the country. The Edgecombe County native is also principal at C.S. Brown High School STEM in Hertford County. Many of his comments Monday morning involved education and students.
Jones said every child should be given the opportunity to be successful and should come to school ready to learn.
There are many obstacles in their path sometimes, he noted, from lack of food and shelter to lack of discipline and guidance at home.
“The key to success doesn’t start in school,” he said. “It starts at home.”
Jones grew up in a family with eight children. His father died when Jones was 6 years old.
His mother told him stories of Martin Luther King. “We understood the dream,” Jones said, and the children learned their mom’s work ethic.
She also taught her children to respect others, especially teachers, police officers and clergy.
“Our youth today respect absolutely no one,” he said.
He asked who in the audience had a school resource officer when they were in school. Instead of an SRO, students got a spanking at school then another spanking at home, he said.
There were no cellphones, internet or email, but somehow his mom knew when he got off the bus if he had been in trouble that day, Jones said. And then she reminded him why he went to school.
Jones said he is afraid for young people, afraid of senseless murders. And he worries that there is little outrage over black-on-black crime.
Jones encouraged the audience to visit schools and do more for children.
“Our job is to educate children to be the best they can be and not to be a burden on society.”
Isabelle Parker, a sixth-grader at Greenfield School, read her winning essay Monday morning.
This is the third year for the Martin Luther King Jr. essay contest, and 52 entries were received.
The topic this year was “What is Your Dream for Wilson?”
Isabelle received a $100 savings bond as first-place winner.
Other winners were Tilaya Lyons, a sixth-grader at Sallie B. Howard School of the Arts and Education, second; and Xaria Woodard, an eighth-grader at Wilson Preparatory Academy, third. They also received savings bonds.
Scholarships were also presented to Marcella Medley, a senior at Barton College, and Devonta Pippen, who attends Wilson Community College.
The annual breakfast is presented by the Wilson Martin Luther King Jr. Commission in partnership with the Arts Council of Wilson and the city’s Human Relations Office.
The commission is chaired by Michael Charrington. Other members are Ricky Best, Carol Alexander, Linda Barnes, the Rev. Roosevelt Ethridge, Cleveland Lewis, Tawanda Moore, Barry Page, Natashia Shelley, Renee Smith, Dennis Williams and Bennie Woodard.