Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Mount Airy was celebrated Monday with a brunch rather than a luncheon as in past years, but the timeless words of the civil rights pioneer continued to be the main course consumed.
The 26th-annual event at J.J. Jones Alumni Auditorium provided proof that lessons espoused by King — who was felled by an assassin’s bullet in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee — are still an inspiration for area residents.
That included a number of minority business owners and professionals in various fields who were highlighted Monday, representing another first for the MLK Day program presented by the Surry County NAACP branch. The theme for this year’s gathering was “Recognizing the Dream of Self-Reliance.”
One by one Monday, business representatives said the struggle for equal opportunity and the values of perseverance, love and service to one’s fellow man are helping them succeed today. They offered quotes from Dr. King’s lengthy catalogue of famous sayings which are still relevant, often drawing nods of appreciation from the attentive crowd in the auditorium.
Sandra Joyce, a local beautician, was one who spoke after citing his quotation regarding change: “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”
Joyce, who was 3 years old when King died, related her struggle as a student at Patrick County High School in Virginia, where she sought to enter its cosmetology program around the early 1980s. However, she was denied entry, being told by school administrators that the school lacked the resources “to do black hair.”
The disappointed student thought about the situation, and then decided to take another approach with school officials. “I don’t care — I’ll do white hair,” Joyce said she told them. She would go on to become the first African-American cosmetology graduate of PCHS, while revolutionizing the program there to become more inclusive.
Joyce now operates Favor Salon in Mount Airy.
And in the same vein, Tonya Brown of the Mary Kay cosmetics and personal-care products company pointed out Monday how its business model reflects values of Dr. King.
“Mary Kay wanted to offer unparalleled opportunities for women,” Brown said of company founder Mary Kay Ash. Someone may become a distributor for the direct-sales business by buying a $100 starter kit, she said, and those who excel can be awarded a pink Cadillac.
Marlene Jarvis, who is associated with Premier Designs Jewelry, mentioned Monday how the company uses its profits to support special projects and missionary families. It also has provided a way for mothers to have an income while still staying home with her children.
Jarvis read a relevant King quote about leadership: “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.”
Renee Lewis, who is in the insurance businesses, told Monday’s audience that she believes both King and President Barack Obama have given women “the tools for us to work with to be successful.”
Dr. King knew the importance of leaving behind a lasting legacy for others to follow, according to Jaimi Scott, who is property manager of SW Properties, a family residential rental business, and also works at Reeves Community Center.
Scott relayed comments King made at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta only a couple of months before his death, about how he’d like to be remembered.
King told the congregation that he didn’t want his eulogy to include anything about his winning the Nobel Peace Prize, or his educational credentials. Instead, the civil rights icon wanted people to remember “that Martin Luther King tried to love somebody” and “that I tried to feed the hungry.”
Along with business owners or representatives who gave testimonials Monday, two local longtime owners were recognized, Leona McArthur of Leona’s Beauty Shop, who has logged a 57-year career, and Shelby King. King, the owner of Shelby’s Beauty Shop, has been in business for 43 years, and also is the longtime president of the Sandy Level Community Action Council.
After area businesses were highlighted, local NAACP Secretary Faye Carter said she thought incorporating that into this year’s MLK Day celebration turned out to be extremely relevant to the spirit of the holiday.
“It’s been very exciting — I have learned some things I didn’t know,” said Carter, who added that the business representatives’ comments also provided a lesson to everyone.
“If you think about it, we are all entrepreneurs in our own right,” she said. Carter explained that a person can fill this role through his or her own life or by ways including telling the story of Jesus.
Other parts of Monday’s program highlighted Martin Luther King Jr. himself.
This included a stirring reading by Donnie Nicholson of the “I Have a Dream” speech King delivered in 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Nicholson’s voice reflected the passion of that momentous speech, and if one closed his eyes, he might have thought King was actually doing the speaking in the Jones Auditorium and not Nicholson.
“Awesome — it was just awesome,” Carter said of Nicholson’s performance, mentioning that words in the speech offer a message to everyone. “We should continue to say, ‘let freedom ring.’”
This was emphasized in a holiday proclamation from the city of Mount Airy which was read during Monday’s program by Anise Hickman. “Dr. Martin Luther King dreamed of an America where all citizens would have equal treatment,” it states in part.
Surry NAACP President Vera Reynolds mentioned Monday that many gains have been made since Martin Luther King Jr. led the civil rights movement. But recent events in the U.S., including police abuses of minority citizens, show that work remains to be done, she said.
“The fight is nowhere near over,” Reynolds remarked.
Monday’s event in the Jones Auditorium also illustrated the impact of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life on the country as a whole, even among people not of color.
Commissioner Jon Cawley, who attended in the capacity of the city’s mayor pro tem along with fellow commissioners Jim Armbrister and Steve Yokeley, told the audience how King’s assassination framed his views of race relations and similar issues.
“I grew up north of Memphis, and when Dr. King was killed in Memphis in 1968, I was six years old,” recalled Cawley, now a member of the local ministerial community in addition to serving in city government.
“And there was nothing in my childhood that shaped who I am more,” he said of that event.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.