Area Black leaders explain how King’s words are as crucial as ever in 2021

By Bridget Manley, publisher

Steven Thomas speaks at Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day in 2016. Stan Maclin, the longtime activist who died in January 2021, checks his phone to watch the time because, as Thomas recalled, “he told me before he was going to time me and hold me to five minutes because he said I get ‘long-winded.'” (Photo provided by Steven Thomas)

For Black activists and leaders in the Valley, there’s more work the country must do toward achieving equality in America — that dream of which Martin Luther King, Jr. famously spoke. And that work continues today, as it did yesterday and will tomorrow in the far-too-slow bend toward justice.  

And while small changes have been implemented in the wake of protests for racial justice in recent months, many community leaders said those same events of 2020 that sparked show the challenges ahead.  

Many of King’s words ring true in 2021, both for how they inspire, and by how much work there still is to accomplish, those leaders told The Citizen leading up to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

King in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 1963

Steven Thomas is one of those leaders. He is co-founder of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County Community Remembrance Project that worked to place a historical marker on Courthouse Square to commemorate the 1878 lynching of Charlotte Harris, Black woman. He also is co-founder of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County chapter of Coming to the Table, which promotes restorative justice, and is an organizer with the Northeast Neighborhood Association of Harrisonburg.

Thomas said four years President Donald Trump’s policies and words have further fractured the country. 

“This outgoing administration ran on a platform and with a very clear purpose to exploit and exacerbate both the very real and the often largely perceived differences of this country’s varied communities for its own political gains,” Thomas said. “The trajectory of its agenda and its intolerance was unfortunately and sadly predictable.”

For Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed, witnessing the deaths Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd in the first five months of 2020 was heartbreaking, but she said she found solace in the community’s solidarity.  

“Last year was painful for me as a Black woman and a Black mayor as I weathered continual onslaughts of emotion, outrage, and exhaustion,” Reed said. “It was horrific to watch the murder of George Floyd on video for all the world to see. The pain was simply unbearable. The anger was overwhelming.” 

Harrisonburg residents organized several peaceful community-led and student-led protests throughout the summer, and thousands of people showed up to march. 

“But as Black people, we have a history of pain to unpack. Harrisonburg is a compassionate city, and during that time of pain, I knew we would come together as a community,” Reed said. “We had over 1,200 people march silently through the streets of Harrisonburg it was a beautiful expression of solidarity. Councilman [Chris] Jones did a prayer gathering and our community prayed for our city and each other. We came together, which is who we are as a community.”

Some changes did come to the Valley in the wake of protests. The Harrisonburg Police Department made changes to its policies, especially regarding use of force.  Last fall, Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law legislation that limits the use of neck restraints and no-knock warrants among other policies the Harrisonburg police already had adopted. JMU finally changed the names of three buildings on campus named for confederate officers. But for true equality, much more is needed, and the work continues. 

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

King in sermons published in his 1963  book “Strength to Love” 

Many politicians said in the hours that followed the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, words to the effect of “this is not who we are.” Others pushed back on that sentiment, arguing that maybe this is who Americans have always been. For Thomas, maybe it’s both. 

“It is who we are as well as who we aren’t,” Thomas said. “The individuals and groups that committed the violence and insurrection at the Capitol demonstrated to the country and the world that if American society cannot have for its leadership a president who is representative of their respective ideologies, the harm that was wrought upon law enforcement and civilians in Washington, D.C., was something that they were and are willing to inflict and incite.”

Thomas says the police officers at the Capitol who defended it gave him hope that a unified country is still the dream for many in America. 

“I don’t believe we can walk away from those images not keenly aware that the unifying power of the ideal of a multicultural and multiracial America at peace and in harmony with itself is also a vision of this country that many are willing and will continue to fight for,” Thomas said. “It is both because the democratic experiment that is the United States remains ongoing and still in development.”

On Wednesday nights in Waynesboro, Chanda McGuffin tutors grade school students for the evening. McGuffin, the co-founder and C.F.O. of RISE Organization, believes education is the key to ending systematic racism in America. 

“We can talk about all the systemic racism that you want to talk about in all facets of life, but it usually leads back to our educational system,” McGuffin said. 

While national conversations about how systemic racism manifests itself focuses largely on criminal justice reform, healthcare equity and immigration, she said the educational system fosters implicit biases that reinforce systemic racism. 

If not addressed, “you will continue to go right back to the place where you were trying to get out of,” McGuffin said. 

McGuffin and co-founder Sharon Fitz work to address systemic racism in every facet of life and have implemented outreach programs working for social and criminal justice, education and healthcare reform.  

For McGuffin, the work also continues on the political front. Her organization asks politicians from across the political landscape to come to RISE to show participants what they can do. Currently, she said she’s talking with local politicians about creating more diversity training for teachers, which she feels is important in helping to end systematic racism in America. 

“We failed our teachers,” McGuffin said. “Go back to what is college curriculum for teachers to learn, and they have maybe one class on diversity. How are you going to send that teacher into the school system to teach my son? With one class on diversity?” 

Reed said 2021 began with a bright spot, politically, for Black organizers who played a key role in mobilizing Democratic voters in Georgia to help that party win two U.S. Senate seats in the Jan. 5 runoff elections. That followed Georgia narrowly going for Joe Biden in the November election. 

Mayor Deanna Reed, who won re-election in 2020, announces her campaign on March 9, 2020, outside city hall. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

Reed said she is proud of the Black women who continue to organize for change. 

“Who would’ve thought we would still be fighting for our votes to be counted? That is why Georgia flipped. And I am proud to say that Georgia flipped because of the hard work of Black women such as Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms who worked tirelessly to ensure that the voices of African Americans and others were heard. Black women have a long history of organizing,” Reed said. 

Reed said King’s messages about unity and solidarity remain as important now for America as they were when he was alive. She said even as the first Black female vice president will be inaugurated Wednesday, Black Americans must continue to use their voices to affect change. 

“Dr. King believed in America’s ability to change,” Reed said. “Today we have more Black leaders in Congress, in state offices and serving as local elected officials than we have ever had before.”

And she said more parts of the community and institutions — including school and college classrooms as well as churches — are arriving at the understanding that achieving racial justice as the “promised land” of equality requires “a spirit of unity and solidarity, the likes of which this country has yet to see.”

The change of administrations also has prompted Thomas to think about King’s words. 

“In his very last speech the night before his assassination, a most profound public address and one of the most memorable ever delivered in national history, ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,’ there is a line where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. states: ‘All we say to America is be true to what you said on paper,’” Thomas said.  “Reviewing the Biden-Harris Plan to Advance Racial Equity, I am reminded of these words of Dr. King’s. We need the incoming administration to come through on its goals and objectives in relation to tackling and working to dismantle systemic racism.”

He said he and others would like to see the Biden-Harris administration publicly support the bill, HR 40, that would create a commission to examine the history and effects of slavery and recommend remedies and reparations for African-Americans. 

So on this year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which comes in the same weeks as the start of the Biden administration, King’s quotes remain top of mind for leaders like Reed and Thomas.

“I am hopeful for our future,” Reed said. “I believe, just like Dr. King said, ‘I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.’”

And for Thomas, he summed up his expectations for next four years using a line from one of King’s 1964 speeches: “We must learn to live together as brothers (and sisters) or perish together as fools.”

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