It’s January – the month when our nation honors one of the greatest prophets of the 20th century, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Unlike so many of our national holidays, which honor war heroes, patriotism and military victories, Martin Luther King Day celebrates the birthday of a man who was martyred, in part, because he did not believe killing is ever morally acceptable; a man who believed when Jesus told his followers to “Love your enemies” he meant exactly that, and nothing less.
Since 2011, thanks to the leadership of Mayor Ronnie Williams and many others, the Town of Garner has recognized King with an impressive birthday celebration. A week from today – Sunday, Jan. 15, King’s 88th birthday – plan to attend the Town of Garner’s 7th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration at the Garner Performing Arts Center (742 W. Garner Rd.) beginning at 4 p.m. Admission is free.
In past years, my MLK Celebration column has focused on the keynote speaker or the winner of Garner’s annual Dream in Action Award. But this year, I want to say a few words about the person who is the backbone of Garner’s MLK Celebration Committee, Wilma McClain-Dunston. Anyone who is involved with the planning of next week’s celebration knows this event would not happen without the steady hand and exemplary leadership of Wilma.
Wilma handles the details – all of them! The finances – Wilma’s job. Meeting reminders – Wilma. The many mock-up versions of the MLK Celebration program (It is a keepsake), which requires designs and re-designs as the months of preparation for the MLK event move closer to January – Wilma takes care of that major project. Publishing the minutes of previous meetings – Wilma again. All handouts including meeting agendas – Wilma’s got it covered.
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You get the picture. But, what is most impressive about Wilma is her humility. Wilma does the hard work of the MLK Committee, yet she has no desire to get any credit for her labor. Wilma simply sees her efforts as part of furthering Martin Luther King’s dream of a more just, peaceful and loving world. Next Sunday, you won’t see Wilma seeking attention for herself. Oh, she’ll be there making sure things run smoothly, but her labor will be done quietly and efficiently.
Garner’s premiere civil rights and social activist, Helen Phillips, has been a New Rand Road neighbor to Wilma since 1959. Phillips, a sharecropper’s daughter, will turn 90 next Sunday. She is exactly two years older than Martin Luther King would have been were he alive today.
“Wilma and her husband (Morris) are just like my children,” Phillips said. “There’s just not another Wilma. When they made Wilma they throwed the mold away.
“She is smart. Whatever she does she doesn’t turn it loose unless it’s a professional job. There’s just not another Wilma.”
As a black woman and Garner native, Wilma can tell stories about growing up in a segregated Southern town – our town. She went to segregated Garner public schools until desegregation allowed her to begin her sophomore year at Garner Senior High School.
Wilma said Garner’s school desegregation plan was “kind of hard” for a young teenage girl.
“We were thrown into an environment where there was still some lingering racism going on,” she said. “We had to get used to each other, because of course, we hadn’t been around that close to the other race. We didn’t know how they were. They didn’t know how we were, so there was a little apprehension. But then you got (to school) and realized that everybody is the same; just your skin color’s different. Everybody’s the same. So you made the best of where you were.”
Wilma says her journey of growing up in a small, segregated Southern town planted a seed of justice in her heart to continue working toward Martin Luther King’s vision of a more just society.
“I made up my mind that I wanted to do something that would help future generations not be under the stigma separate,” Wilma said. “I was very happy when we finally integrated because it gave every child an opportunity to be on an equal playing field.”
Dwight Rodgers, who is co-chairman of the MLK program committee, has served on the MLK Celebration committee with Wilma since its inception.
Rodgers, who will give you chills when you hear his rendition of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech next Sunday, said Wilma is “the glue that holds the whole organization together. Without her input we wouldn’t and couldn’t be as far as we are today. She’s creative. She’s been able to do things we thought may have been impossible.”
The theme of this year’s MLK Celebration is “Unity Through Service Equals Community.” Instead of a single keynote speaker, three locals will speak about their work with three service projects.
▪ Garner Senior High physical education teacher Jane House will talk about the school’s March Madness basketball game that includes children with special needs playing a basketball game with faculty and other students.
▪ Tom La Motta of Garner United Methodist Church will speak about the congregation’s Homeless Outreach Providing Encouragement (H.O.P.E.) Ministries, which includes 10 local congregations that collectively provide care and kindness to Garner’s homeless community.
▪ Amy White of Garner First Baptist Church will speak about Community of Hope Outreach Ministries, a congregational program that includes a food pantry for the needy and other services.
Other speakers include: MLK Celebration committee member The Rev. Cindy Faison, who will address “MLK in the Community.” Garner police Chief Brandon Zuidema will speak on community policing, and Juniper Level Baptist Church pastor The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey B. Robinson, who will address the topic, “Unity Through Service Equals Community: Continue to Cast The Vision For All.”
Wilma won’t be giving a speech next Sunday, but if they needed her to, Wilma would be there.
“Dr. King’s life was devoted to hope and healing in America,” Wilma said. “Not only did he talk about justice and freedom, he demonstrated that it could be accomplished through nonviolent means. Dr. King’s dream became not only my vision but a vision to all who were living under the oppression of racism, poverty, hatred, bigotry and violence.”