David Forbes has been asked the same question for decades: What was it like to meet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a 20-year-old Shaw University sophomore?
“It was easy, because Dr. Martin Luther King was a very humble and approachable person,” Forbes said of his experience in the civil rights movement. “I was not intimidated by meeting him and walking with him.”
Forbes, who’s now the dean of Shaw’s Divinity School, spoke Sunday afternoon at Garner’s annual Martin Luther King Day celebration. He met King when Shaw hosted the first meetings of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Raleigh.
“Dr. King taught us a great deal,” Forbes said. “He was approachable, articulate, intelligent, committed and passionate to bring about change. It was Dr. King that told us we would see, in the coming years, changes that would turn America upside down.”
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That change came soon after with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned racial discrimination in voting. “Dr. King has left his impact on my life and on your life and on every citizen of the United States and the world,” Forbes said.
While Forbes recounted events from a half-century ago, many of the speakers at the Garner events stressed that the fight for equal rights and social justice is far from over. The event had the atmosphere of a prayer meeting, with calls to action, standing ovations and shouts of “Amen!”
Helen Phillips, a longtime Garner activist who recently turned 89, offered a litany of challenges: Gerrymandered voting districts, racial profiling by law enforcement and an unfair judicial system.
“We have not reached our destination until the senseless killing of our black men and women stops,” she said. “Let us march on, let us not give up until the victory is ours.”
Congressman David Price, a Democrat, also called on the crowd to stay active in fight for civil rights.
“Politics and government are not optional, they often make the crucial difference, and we have to engage politically,” Price said. “Black Americans still face daily discrimination, harassment and violence.”
Price also took issue with recent election law changes in North Carolina that include a photo ID requirement for voting. He said the laws “make it harder” to vote and “seem eerily similar to the laws that the civil rights leaders fought against.”
Supporters of the voter ID requirement have argued the change is needed to prevent voter fraud. Legislators watered down the law last year in the face of a lawsuit, and voters this year who come to the polls without an ID will still be allowed to vote – if they fill out a form explaining why they couldn’t bring an ID.
Sunday’s keynote speaker, First Baptist Church pastor Dumas Harshaw, said King would be concerned about the state of the country today. Harshaw said that while America has elected its first black president, Barack Obama has faced an unprecedented level of hateful criticism.
“How can it not be racism?” Harshaw said. “How in the world can we treat the office and the man in the office the way this president has been treated?”
He said the country needs new leaders to take up the cause of King, who he called a “prophet” as well as a civil rights leader.
“We haven’t heard Martin sufficiently,” Harshaw said. “Martin would say: ‘Now is the time for somebody to stand up.’”
Churches inspire art
Garner’s Martin Luther King Day celebration began with art from the places where the civil rights leader’s movement began: African-American churches.
The Garner Performing Arts Center’s lobby is filled with paintings depicting jubilant, colorful worship scenes. Garner artist LeGrant Taylor, who organized the “Thou Art Black Church” exhibit with seven other artists, said churches are a fitting subject for Martin Luther King Day and the upcoming Black History Month.
“That was (King’s) pedestal where he reached the people,” Taylor said. “The black church has always been a refuge for African-Americans in the midst of all that goes on. It was a safe haven.”
The exhibit continues at the Garner Performing Arts Center lobby through Feb. 29, and Taylor said he hopes to tour the art to other venues as well. The art is on display from 1:30-5 p.m. Monday through Friday.