By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor
Speaking to college students on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2015, Stan Maclin patiently, yet powerfully, explained the pervasive legacy of systemic racism. The group had crowded into a barber shop in downtown Harrisonburg, with sunlight filtering through the beige, lacy curtains. He traced America’s history of slavery and injustice up through the decades to policies in Harrisonburg, such as the urban renewal projects that razed the homes and businesses of Black residents in the city’s northeast neighborhood in the 1950s and ‘60s.
But Maclin imbued his talk with optimism.
“You’re the generation that’s going to make a difference,” Maclin told them.
It was one gathering of so many that Maclin led to further the causes of racial and social justice to which he devoted his life.
Last Saturday, Maclin – one of Harrisonburg’s most prominent community organizers, educators, pastors, and social justice advocates – was laid to rest in Newtown Cemetery, borne by a procession of family, friends, and fellow activists, drumbeats marking their footsteps. Maclin died Jan. 11 at age 67.
“I learned from him patience. I learned peace. I learned understanding. I learned what it’s like to be a man and a leader and an organizer,” said Maclin’s good friend, Marvin Roane. Roane, a professional motivator and the assistant director of the Armstrong Leadership Program in Richmond, fulfilled a promise to Maclin by delivering his eulogy Saturday.
“Stan lived everything that he talked about. Everything. So when he said his ‘PEACE’ motto: people everywhere acting courageously everyday, that’s what he did,” Roane told The Citizen. He was “a great man, and I would like to say a king, because that’s what he was. And he had his ‘palace queen,'” as he referred to his wife Diana.
Maclin moved to Harrisonburg two decades ago and was an active and influential community organizer right up until his death. He founded the Harriet Tubman Cultural Center in 2010. He led the Martin Luther King, Jr. Way Coalition, to successfully rename Cantrell Avenue after King in 2013. After the killing of George Floyd, Maclin organized a series of peace rallies to speak out against racism and police brutality. The relationships forged at those rallies then led Maclin to co-found the People’s Equality Commission of the Shenandoah Valley, or PECO.
Just last month, he spoke of his hopes of creating a civilian law enforcement review board in Harrisonburg.
Roane said he and his mother called Maclin every day this past year to pray with him “because towards the end, Stan wasn’t well.”
“But he was always out there,” Roane said. “He was always doing something, still.”
And usually what he was doing was speaking out.
“Stan Maclin was a prophetic voice against racial and economic disparities in our Harrisonburg community,” Harvey Yoder, a counselor and fellow social justice advocate, wrote to The Citizen in an email. “Like the Biblical prophet Amos, he represented a kind of plumb line that reminded us of what it meant to be upright and just in our relationships with others, especially the marginalized.”
Maclin was also passionate about younger people joining movements for racial justice and civil rights.
Naomi Diaz, a member of PECO, said she first met Maclin at the peace rally in May of 2020. She recalled being “intrigued” that Maclin wasn’t as angry and frustrated with society as she was.
“The first thing I noticed from him was his positive, God loving, genuine, and peaceful personality,” Diaz wrote to The Citizen. “Shortly after that event I became involved with him through PECO and I was able to understand why he was the way he was. Stan had spent most of his life as an activist and fought for many causes, but what made him so special was his ability to see the good in everyone.”
While Maclin invested immeasurable time and energy into many projects, causes, and campaigns, his nephew, Michael Maclin, said the Harriet Tubman Cultural Center was “his heart and soul.”
Michael Maclin, who is the director of equity for the Special School District of St. Louis County, Missouri, travelled to Harrisonburg for his uncle’s funeral last weekend. He told The Citizen that Stan Maclin, until his death, had been working on rebuilding a historic cabin where enslaved men and women had lived. The cabin is on the grounds of the cultural center.
“Uncle Stan didn’t have a builder’s license, didn’t have a blueprint, never went to school for that, but he was in the process of building it,” Michael Maclin said. “He was humble, glowing, loving, but he really was about impactfulness … I can sum up Uncle Stan like this. His motto was, ‘either you perpetuate inequity or you interrupt it.’ He lived by that.”
“Stan built the Tubman Center to provoke frank conversations between whites and Blacks. These can, of course, be awkward, painful, risky,” his friend, Rosetta Stone co-founder John Fairfield, wrote to The Citizen in an email.
“I’ll never forget his climbing on a rickety chair with a noose around his neck, talking to visitors at the Tubman Center about lynchings. The noose dangled from a broken limb on a big oak he called the ‘hanging tree’ exhibit,” Fairfield said. “Stan felt if whites couldn’t face the traumas that still impact Blacks, there would never be healing.”
‘What Stan has been fighting’
But even at a memorial service hosted by PECO on Jan. 12, the racism that Maclin spent his life working to dismantle surfaced. Toward the end of the event, which was held over Zoom, a participant who had sat with their camera and mic off began spewing violent and racist comments in the Zoom chat.
“You couldn’t use the chat, at least nobody would have seen your comment, because it would be flushed out of the window by the streaming curses,” Fairfield said. “So it wasn’t just a bot – because it reacted to people’s voices – but the troll was using tech that let them unload streams of hateful text far faster than a person could type, so that nobody else could use the chat.”
Some of the service organizers wanted to abruptly end the Zoom meeting, to terminate the stream of hatred.
“I said ‘no,'” Roane told The Citizen. “Don’t shut it down. I need you to see this. You need to see. Everybody that’s on the line needs to see what it is we experience, what Stan has been fighting for all of his life.'”
Origins of an organizer
Maclin’s journey to the civil rights movement began in his teenage years, when the Ku Klux Klan burned down his family’s farm outside of Peoria, Illinois. He recounted this story and others in a series of video interviews PECO conducted. Maclin said he watched his father’s anger over losing the farm become misdirected against his family, which caused Maclin to leave home barely into his teens.
The arson attack “made me sensitive and committed and dedicated to human rights,” Maclin said. “In order to survive, at the age of 14, I joined a local gang and became one of the top leaders … our gang leader was Mark Clark.”
Mark Clark — as in the Black Panther leader who was gunned down by Chicago police alongside Fred Hampton in 1969.
The gang “taught us, number one, the importance of community. It was without question that we would come together and provide Saturday breakfasts and basketball programs for the people of the area. These are things that we did, even in the midst of being so-called gang leaders,” Maclin recounted. “It seemed that during that time, that law enforcement was always fighting against us, and victimizing individuals within our community. We couldn’t understand, why is it that there has to be second-class citizenry?”
Maclin said Clark and Hampton’s deaths scared him enough to leave the gang. That, and he’d found Christianity, and gravitated toward the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr.
Maclin viewed King as acting in “the way of Christ.”
In the videos, Maclin also recounts one of his early victories for justice that took place in his hometown of Peoria. In 1987, he and five other Black residents filed a class action lawsuit against the city, the city’s board of education and its public park system, arguing that the local election systems “diluted” the votes of Black people.
“And we won! And for the first time, we were able to have representation on the city council,” Maclin said.
Maclin also strove to improve the community around him while he lived in Richmond. That’s where Roane first met him, around 1990, when the two of them ran the Admiral Gravely homeowners association. Roane told The Citizen that, at times, their community-building went far beyond the rote neighborhood meeting – such as incidents where they confronted local drug dealers.
One time, the dealer “had a gun, but there were maybe six or seven of us, and we went down there and said, ‘hey, our children live here and you can’t sell drugs in this neighborhood anymore.’ And we could see the gun on the seat. And he was like, ‘okay,’ and he left … just like that!” Roane said.
“But that was the kind of man that Stan was … he was going to stand up for what he believed in.”
Memorial donations can be made to the Harriet Tubman Cultural Center, P.O. Box 214, Harrisonburg, Va., 22803.
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