Recently I received a phone call from Helen Phillips. Mrs. Phillips (as most people call her), has not been feeling well lately, and she asked me to stop by for a visit to help her brainstorm a script for a speech she is slated to deliver Sunday, Jan. 17 at the Town of Garner’s 6th annual Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration. This free event is being held at the Garner Performing Arts Center (742 W. Garner Rd.) beginning at 4 p.m.
Mrs. Phillips didn’t really need my help (but I am honored she called). Her life experiences and her passion for justice give her all the material she needs to deliver a speech that will make us all laugh – and cry. Born in 1927, Mrs. Phillips was a sharecropper’s daughter, who lived through Jim Crow in the South, facing discrimination and racism in a then-segregated Wake County.
Five years ago, I heard Mrs. Phillips, who turns 89 this Friday, deliver another speech at the Town of Garner’s inaugural Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration, and she stole the show. Please pray that Mrs. Phillips feels well enough to grace us with her presence again next week.
“I hate to talk about my own hometown, but I got to tell it,” Mrs. Phillips said to laughter in 2011. “Garner had two local restaurants,” she said, never divulging the names of the two restaurants. “You could order your food at the side door and you waited and picked it up at the back door.” Blacks – then known as “Coloreds” – could not eat in Garner’s segregated restaurants.
When Mrs. Phillips got a job in downtown Raleigh, she would catch a Greyhound bus near “the big tree” on Garner Rd. “We’d flag the bus down, get in the bus, give the man a quarter, go all the way back to the back, plenty empty seats (in the front of the bus), couldn’t sit there,” she said. Her white co-workers would send Mrs. Phillips on food errands to the F.W. Woolworth’s lunch counter. “How much is that pie a slice?” Mrs. Phillips said she asked the server. “Ten cents,” the woman answered. “’You can buy it, but you can’t eat it (in here).’ Hudson Belk was the same way. You had the bathrooms segregated, water fountains was segregated – coloreds here, whites here.”
Once as a child, Phillips complained to her mother because she was thirsty, and she wanted to drink from the “whites only” water fountain – the colored water fountains were often broken. Said her mother: “Just you remember, we are colored, and we have to drink from the colored water fountain.” Rex Hospital was also segregated, Mrs. Phillips said. “You could work there,” she said. “You might get sick. You might get hurt, but you couldn’t be treated there. You had to go to St. Agnes Hospital, the only hospital for blacks.”
This year, Mrs. Phillips, a widow and a mother of eight children, hopes to be back on the Garner Performing Arts Center stage to deliver a speech titled: “Why are we still marching?” More than 50 years since major civil rights changes became the law of the land, the fight for basic justice is still being waged. Voter suppression laws have passed in the N.C. General Assembly. Major budget cuts have hit education, health care and nutrition programs. In the 21st century, Mrs. Phillips’ laments that she is still fighting the battles she thought were won in the 20th century.
In addition to Mrs. Phillips, next week’s program includes a keynote address from the Rev. Dr. Dumas Harshaw, theology professor and pastor of First Baptist Church, Raleigh. Other speakers include: Dr. David C. Forbes, a lifelong civil rights activist, and MLK Committee Program Co-chairman Dwight Rogers, who will deliver a rendition of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
North Garner Middle School teacher Marcia A. Timmel will be honored with this year’s “Dream-in-Action Award” for her work supporting education, human rights and civil rights. Timmel, a mother of two adult daughters, has been a leader in the effort to support North Carolina’s teachers and students. In 2013, she was among those arrested at the Moral Monday protests at the N.C. General Assembly. The charges were later dropped. Student leader and Garner Magnet High School graduate Sarah Pierce will be honored with the MLK Committee’s scholarship award.
The musical program will include selections from the Creech Road Elementary School chorus, and a solo from Garner’s own Amanda Watson Bailey, Miss North Carolina 2008. Our master of ceremonies is WRAL news anchor Gerald Owens. Last, but not least, is our host and co-founder of Garner’s Martin Luther King Jr. Annual Celebration Committee, the Honorable Mayor of Garner Ronnie Williams.
Most importantly, next Sunday’s event needs you – the citizens of Garner – to show your support for what has become a major Wake County event, second only to the City of Raleigh’s MLK march and program. So, come hear words of wisdom from many of our community’s leaders who have lived through the hardships of a segregated South.
As Mrs. Phillips said five years ago: “Segregation is no stranger to me. I lived through it. I will continue to embrace whatever comes my way. We, as a human race, must continue to strive for justice and equality for everybody. Martin Luther King’s life and legacy, rooted in love, grounded in nonviolence, teaches us whatever happened in the past, and what is happening in the present and what will happen in the future, we, at the end of the day, should know we are all God’s children and members of the human race.
“I knew one day – one day, we were going to be free. I am so glad the Lord let me live to see this day, that I can stand before you, and say, ‘I’m free. I’m free. Thank God, we’re all free.’”
Patrick O’Neill is a member of the Town of Garner's Martin Luther King Jr. Annual Celebration Committee.