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Town Remembers Martin Luther King Jr.
Tyler, Texas holds 23rd celebration for the civil rights leader
Joffre D. Meyer (bohemiotx)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2010-02-11 10:37 (KST)   
The leading public event in Tyler, Texas is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Celebration. Tyler is a city of slightly over 100,000 people, and is the largest city in East Texas -- placed roughly halfway between Dallas and Shreveport, Louisiana.

Reverend Jerome Milton, a Baptist minister and track coach for the Catholic high school, started the event twenty-three years ago in 1987. It begins with a march in the center of downtown plaza that goes a few blocks to the Immaculate Conception Catholic Cathedral. Then we have an ecumenical service hosted by Reverend Milton with appearances by local luminaries, such as Neal Katz, Reform Jewish rabbi; Mayor Barbara Bass; Monsignor Joe Strickland of the Catholic Cathedral, JoAnn Hampton, County Commissioner, and more.

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The MLK event stands in stark contrast to the Confederate memorial plaque in the downtown square. Tyler was the leading weapon manufacturing center for the Confederacy west of the Mississippi. Tyler rifles were highly regarded. Nearby Camp Ford was the largest POW camp during the Civil War. The work of "faithful slaves" was also hailed on the plaque among other important things about Tyler for the Confederate States of America. Times have changed.

The 2010 MLK Community Celebration fulfilled Dr. King's prediction that one day the sons of the slave master and slave would sit at the table of brotherhood together -- a point emphasized by Reverend Milton. Wallace Jefferson is the first African-American Chief Justice in Texas. Judge Jefferson earned his degrees from the University of Michigan and University of Texas at Austin Law School. His great, great grandfather was once owned by the great, great grandfather of Tyler First Presbyterian Pastor, Dr. Stewart Baskin. Dr. Baskin received his Ph.D. in Christian Social Ethics. Those gentlemen were the keynote speakers for the 2010 event.

The supporting presenters offered some fine insights about the day. Monsignor Strickland mentioned that the packed church reminded him of a vision of heaven, full of people of all races and ages. Someone else noted that the hierarchy of this country is far more integrated than ever before. Obviously, we have our first African-American (or half-Black) President in Barack Obama. At the local level, Donald Sanders is the mayor pro-tem, as well as a long-time city councilman. Mayor Bass described Dr. King as one with a "broader vision than himself," one who emphasized the need to come together, our freedom of speech, and to get an education. Mayor Bass has attended several Kwanzaa celebrations in the past two years and was a guest host for the Christmas dinner at East Texas Rescue Mission. County Commissioner, JoAnn Hampton (another African-American) referred to Dr. King as "America's Dreamer," one who left the world a better place.

The Jarvis Christian College choir performed, "Right on, King Jesus," after these preliminary remarks. Jarvis Christian College is a Historically Black College (HBCU) in Hawkins, a small town about twenty miles north of Tyler. The Disciples of Christ, a predominantly White denomination, operate the college. This twelve-person group drew lots of applause for their performance.

First, Reverend Stewart Baskin spoke. Both his dad and great, great grandfather were judges. Dr. Baskin made observations on how the country has changed in forty years. University of Texas at Austin won the last college national championship in football with an all-white team back in 1970. Dr. Baskin can't imagine the old days when there weren't blacks on the city council or segregated facilities. Yet Baskin admitted that racism is not dead and feels ashamed when he hears ugly racist remarks from a few whites. Baskin declared that it's up to whites to stomp out "the last vestiges of racism," even if it means being branded as troublemakers or playing the race card.

Baskin declared that he was proud of this moment when he finally met the judge who knows more about Baskin's family than him. Judge Nicholas Battle was a district attorney in Waco who fought for the Confederacy and became a judge. Despite that background, Judge Battle was determined to enforce the new laws banning slavery and protecting the rights of African-American citizens. As Judge Jefferson would note in his address later, Battle honored the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Amendments.

Then it was Judge Jefferson's turn. He recalled Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, it said. Dr. King did not believe in a slower pace for civil rights -- something he saw as waiting for justice. Judge Jefferson found out about his family's ties with the family of Reverend Baskin when the judge was doing a genealogy study in a University of Texas library back in 1985. He learned of his great, great grandfather, Shedrick Willis (1817-1903), a well-known, freed slave who rose to city councilman. Willis had moved to Waco in 1855. It turned out that Mr. Willis's former slave master, Judge Battle not only freed him but also started a business for him. Judge Battle once made a key ruling in the mid 1800's that a freed slave, Louis Redbull, couldn't be sold back into slavery. This decision went all the way to the Supreme Court and was not overturned. After the Civil War, Judge Battle continued to courageously uphold the rights of all citizens: white and black.

Then the choir from Jarvis performed another song with one man doing the lead and the others backing him up. The Marine Color Guard presented the flags. Then Reverend Milton spoke again and declared how proud he is to be an American. The two keynote speakers received this year's Non-Violent Social Change awards. Back in 2004, the winners of that award drew attention from well beyond Tyler. Rabbi Neal Katz and Anwar Khalifah, a Moslem architect from Texas A&M shared the award for their co-sponsorship of a Habitat for Humanity house for a Christian family.

Later, Rabbi Katz remembered when he first called Reverend Milton about the shared history of Reverend Baskin and Judge Jefferson's families, joking, "You're never going to believe this!" The service ended with a prayer for the victims of the Haiti earthquake, and the local Red Cross was in attendance to accept donations. Afterwards, there was the traditional mixed vegetable and meat stew with coffee outside.
©2010 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Joffre D. Meyer

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