Dozens of teens who spent Monday’s National Day of Service at the community orchard were not there to prune trees or harvest a crop. They gathered on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to cultivate a better understanding of one another, despite their differences.
More than 40 people came to the orchard near the intersection of Jarvis and Avery streets to take part in a “talking circle,” a forum hosted by Love A Sea Turtle.
“We chose to take this dialogue approach going into 2021 as a way of embracing diversity,” said LAST member Abby Yoon, a senior at D.H. Conley High School. “We wanted to honor Martin Luther King, who also advocated for peaceful change, and I believe dialogue is critical in achieving peaceful change.”
Volunteers with LAST, a nonprofit dedicated to environmental stewardship and youth leadership development, have typically spent this day working on various community improvement projects. For more than a decade, as many as 100 or more students have turned out the third Monday in January to help clean streets, parks or waterways.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the organization continued many of its traditional volunteer functions in 2020, including water quality testing, repairing and repurposing bikes for underprivileged youth and harvesting and donating produce from the community garden and orchard. But Dan Sokolovic, co-director of LAST, said members wanted to have something different for MLK Day of Service.
“This is what we’re calling service to ourselves,” he said of Monday’s gathering. “A lot of these young kids, they’ve been suffering. We have noticed it.”
LAST member Makayla Harris, a South Central High School graduate who is now a junior at East Carolina University, said isolation brought on by COVID-19, coupled with current social and political unrest, weigh heavily on students.
“(Some students) are on lockdown,” she said. “They cannot go anywhere. They cannot spend time with their friends. Everything has to be virtual.”
Harris is a family and community services major at ECU, where spring semester classes are scheduled to begin today. While she has moved back into the dorm, her classes will be online.
“When you go to an online class setting, you don’t get the opportunity to socialize,” she said. “… I feel like the pandemic has really increased the levels of anxiety or depression that people feel.”
Sokolovic said several high school members of LAST had been planning to return to campus for classes this semester before the county’s public school system moved to two weeks of all-virtual instruction.
“They’ve been looking forward to going back to school, and now all of a sudden they’re not,” he said. “This (event) is an opportunity for them to see each other. These kids need connection. They want it.”
Students, who were required to wear face coverings for the event, brought lawn chairs, which they arranged in a circle, modeled after a traditional way native Americans have gathered to communicate and solve problems.
To help prevent the spread of COVID-19, Monday’s event did not include the passing of a “talking stick” or “talking feather” from one speaker to another.
Participants were invited to share their thoughts on any topic without argument from others.
“No one is allowed to interrupt,” Sokolovic said. “No one is allowed to boo or hiss.”
Students talked about a variety of concerns from the pandemic to pollution and from immigration to inclusion. Racism was a common theme, although students spoke of tensions beyond black and white, discussing prejudice against Asian-Americans and other minority groups.
Yoon said diversity among its members is one of the strengths of LAST, which was created in 2005 by Sokolovic’s daughter, Casey.
“As we volunteer, we help cultivate empathy for each other and we learn from each other,” Yoon said. “We recognize that there’s power in all of our diverse perspectives.”
Sokolovic said engaging in civil discourse is a fitting way to pay tribute to King.
“Martin Luther King was about love kindness, courage and unity,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing with the talking circle is getting people to come together and to understand it’s OK to have differences.”
Local groups celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a march honoring King’s memory and by sharing the struggles African Americans still face in America today.
With many supportive honks from passing motorists, the Coalition Against Racism, Mapinduzi, Pitt County NAACP and Pitt County Southern Leadership Conference marched from Thomas Foreman Park to Greenville City Hall on Monday.
About 40 marchers chanted “Touch one, touch all,” “Fire, fire gentrifier,” “Don’t arrest me, arrest the police,” and “When our rights are under attack what do we do? Stand up, fight back” down Fifth Street.
Pitt County NAACP President Calvin Henderson recalled the police killings of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the spring. He the marchers had gathered to say enough is enough. He said voting is a tool that will send the message that police cannot kill black men and women.
“It is time for us to lay down our differences and come together, Dr. (Martin Luther) King stood for unity, nonviolence, and he stood up and took a stand in support of the ballot box. You have seen today, as a result of a new president coming in, of Georgia, what can happen when we come together,” Henderson said, referring in part to a black woman, Kamala Harris, winning the vice presidency, a black man, Raphael Warnock, winning a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia.
Janice Whitaker was among several speakers during the event. She is the aunt of Brandon Joyner, who was killed by Greenville Police Department officers in 2018 outside a downtown club. Police said he had fired a gun into a crowd in an alleyway near Reade Street before they shot him.
Whitaker and Joyner’s mother, Jeanette Barnes, did not witness the incident, but they believe his killing was not justified, she said.
“We stand here today, my sister Jeanette and I, in the name of justice. We remember Dr. Martin Luther King on today, Dr. King had a dream over 60 years ago that police brutality and violence against racism would be a thing of the past, however, we are still fighting that in the present and we are hopeful that in our future this will be a thing of the past,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker recited King’s words including: “Injustice anywhere is a threat everywhere” and “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
“If Brandon did not matter to us, we would not be here today, if our neighbors that got shot after Brandon, before Brandon, all over the world, if they did not matter to us, we would not be here today,” Whitaker said.
James Dudley introduced himself as president of the Pitt County Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization once headed by King.
He said the holiday allows people to come together and celebrate the civil rights leader and celebrate what he stood for: equality, unity, peace, love and putting down racism.
Dudley said celebrating the day is especially important this year because of the turmoil caused by the killings of Floyd and Taylor, the COVID-19 pandemic, the election and the recent attack on the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
“If we can come together and keep the dream alive, do what King would do to keep the dream alive among us in Greenville, N.C., for right now, it will be a great thing, that’s what we’re out here for, to celebrate,” Dudley said.
Co-chairman of the Pitt County Coalition Against Racism Don Cavellini presented demands the organization previously presented outside City Hall on Dec. 10.
Cavellini said CAR would be reiterating their demands for a civilian police review board, affordable rental housing, dropping charges against all people arrested for the Black Lives Matter protests in Greenville on May 31 and a stop to militarizing the police. The Greenville City Council has largely ignored these demands, Cavellini said.
“The reason we’re here is, obviously, to honor Dr. King and what he stood for, and very often it’s misunderstood. They just remember he had a dream,” Cavellini said. “No, he was a fighter, arrested close to 100 times for reasons that were righteous, and that kind of motion to get change is necessary even today.”
The actions of rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 weren’t far from the minds of speakers at this year’s Interfaith Cleary celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.
The Rev. Bob Hudak, retired rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, said he struggled to write his comments on the afternoon of the attack.
“I found myself preparing for today at a loss for words because of an emptiness I felt in my heart when it comes to how to start, let alone finish, a spirit-filled message in redeeming Dr. King’s dream,” he said.
The 80-minute program, normally a celebration that draws a large crowd for food and song, this year was prerecorded at First Presbyterian Church and released on the Interfaith website at noon. Titled “Redeeming The Dream,” it aimed inspire listeners to continue the work for racial and social justice born out of the turmoil of 2020.
Hudak, who volunteered to drive voters to the polls on Election Day, said he didn’t pay much attention to the far-right rhetoric that the election had been stolen through voter fraud until he watched the events at the Capitol unfold.
He then re-read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham jail” to a group of interfaith ministers who criticized his participation in demonstrations. “You deplore the demonstrations but don’t seem concerned for the conditions that brought it about,” King told them.
Hudak said he thought about the letter and the rioters’ anger and concluded, “We are all God’s children, created in the image of God. What needs to be redeemed, as I see it, is the narrative that has been overshadowed by the big lie of voter fraud in our recent elections.
“The good news, the truth that needs to be celebrated is that African Americans appeared to turn out in large numbers to vote.”
Redeeming the dream means rekindling the flames of hope first set ablaze by King, said Charles E. Lewis Sr., senior pastor of Antioch & Kairos Church Ministries in Bell Arthur.
Lewis said as a child his job was to make sure coal and wood were on hand so a fire could be kept going at home.
Lewis said he “fell down on the job” one day and the fire dwindled to ash. His father ordered him to bring wood and kindling, which he put on the ash. With a few strokes of a fire poker, flame jumped from the ash and set the kindling ablaze.
“The fire that at one time looked like it was out now seemed to be burning with great intensity only because the right thing was placed on the ashes,” Lewis said.
King started the flame and it continued to burn after he died at the hands of an assassin in 1968.
“I’ve come to tell you that it is our responsibility today to keep the fire burning. We cannot afford to allow the ashes of hatred, the ashes of division, the ashes of racism to put out the fire that our drum major started during the civil rights movement.”
He continued the analogy with a passage from Leviticus that described the work priests undertook to keep a fire at the altar. “We also must keep the fire burning,” Lewis said.
That means not being brought down by the “wet wood” that is systemic racism, disbelief, division, unChristlike statements and policies, he said.
It means supplying kindling in the form of improved economic mobility for African Americans, providing affordable health care, passing student loan debt relief because African American students bear a disproportionate amount of the burden, Lewis said.
It’s reforming policing, ending for-profit prisons, reducing recidivism and developing policies that create tuition-free historically black colleges and universities, he said.
It’s providing safe drinking water and keeping air and land safe. It’s investing in black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs, Lewis said.
Black-owned businesses have a 20 percent higher rejection rate when seeking loans, he said. When the loans are awarded, Black-owned businesses receive 40 percent of money requested compared to what is awarded white-owned businesses.
“To increase access to capital we must put some wood on the fire and make the flames jet up from the heart of the country,” Lewis said.
“Make the dream live, don’t put the fire out,” Lewis said.