Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “inspired ordinary people to do extraordinary things” during his lifetime, and his lessons of more than 40 years ago also can meet today’s challenges.
That was the message Monday to about 170 people who attended the 23rd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Luncheon at J.J. Jones Auditorium here, delivered by keynote speaker Debra Ragin Jessup.
While people today enjoy many rights they were denied during King’s lifetime, “there’s more to be done,” said Jessup, a Westfield resident and veteran attorney who also has been a university law professor.
“We cannot allow Dr. King’s legacy to be forgotten just because we are comfortable,” added Jessup, a member of the Vrsecky, Probst & Associates law firm in Winston-Salem, specializing in employment issues including sexual harassment, racial discrimination and gender discrimination.
Jessup, whose remarks often were greeted by applause and appreciative comments from those in the crowded auditorium during Monday’s King birthday celebration, is a mother of two children. She said they sometimes can be heard using a popular modern expression: “We’re good.”
While that can be an OK situation for many things, it is not acceptable when in comes to ensuring equal rights and opportunity for all, Jessup continued. “This is one of those instances where good is not good enough,” she said, with listeners clapping in approval.
People Power A Key
In King’s day, African-Americans had to sit at the back of the bus, could not eat in a restaurant, were barred from movie theaters and couldn’t vote.
“We must never forget,” Jessup said of those struggles. “There are those of us in this room who remember segregation.”
The civil-rights leader being honored Monday organized bus boycotts and took other actions that led to Supreme Court rulings to make certain discriminatory practices unconstitutional. King’s efforts also brought about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, two landmark pieces of legislation.
“He did more in 10 years than had been done in 350 years to address the rights of African-Americans,” Jessup said of the period starting with the first slaves’ arrival in Virginia in 1619 and stretching to the 1960s.
And though King was at the forefront of various causes until being silenced by an assassin’s bullet in 1968, “ordinary” Americans also played a key role in the accomplishments, Jessup said.
“They were able to stand up together because of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” said the graduate of Georgetown University and Wake Forest University School of Law.
“Just the act of staying seated was courageous,” Jessup said of the actions on the bus by Rosa Parks, who was just a regular person who didn’t plan on becoming famous in such a way. The same was true of the four freshmen at North Carolina A&T University who staged a sit-in in 1960, Jessup said.
“He inspired ordinary people just like us to stand in the face of attacking dogs (and) water hoses,” the speaker said of King. “What did they do it with? They didn’t really have a lot — all they had was each other.”
King “Paved Way”
Civil-rights gains weren’t really about black Americans, Jessup continued, but were focused on making America live up to its constitutional ideals of all men being created equal.
And the fact that the birthday celebration at J.J. Jones Alumni Auditorium also was held on the same day as the second inauguration of President Barack Obama was not lost on the guest speaker.
“Because we all know he paved the way for President Obama,” Jessup said of King.
Monday’s MLK luncheon was one of the most well-attended in the 23 years of the event, said Anise Hickman, program chairperson, who added that extra tickets had to be printed to meet the demand.
Those attending included Mount Airy Mayor Deborah Cochran and Steve Yokeley, a city commissioner, along with Surry County Register of Deeds Carolyn Comer and new Clerk of Superior Court Rebecca Brendle.
One of the highlights of the year for the Surry County NAACP chapter, the occasion also was celebrated by music — including a group singing of “We Shall Overcome” while everyone held hands.
Problems are still being faced by the country’s poor and minority residents, it was pointed out during the program of more than two hours. But Jessup said the accomplishments of the past “gave us a tool to fight injustices and discrimination” for all time.
Today’s challenges include what Jessup called “subtle attacks on our right to vote,” including a proposal in North Carolina to require photo identification for everyone casting a ballot.
It additionally was pointed out Monday that school resources are threatened through plans that could force public schools to compete with private schools.
Budget cuts also are popular these days among governmental bodies, which tend to hurt the poor and minority citizens, the audience was told.
Yet through the lessons espoused by King — who would now be 84 years old had he lived to see his most recent birthday on Jan. 15 — and the “ordinary” folks who were behind him, those obstacles also can be overcome, Jessup said.
“If it means making sure every eligible voter has a picture ID, then that’s what we shall do,” the keynote speaker vowed.
“He left us a legacy and a blueprint for success,” Jessup added of King. “And even though we are ordinary people, we can be inspired to do extraordinary things.”
She concluded, “There is more to be done if Dr. King’s dream is to become a reality. And we must dig deep and find the courage.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.