Photo: Pictured above, Gadsden City School System Superintendent Tony Reddick (right) shares a joyful moment with Dr. Tara Donald Walls (left) before delivering the keynote speech as the Gadsden Inspirational Choir applauds at the 35th annual city-wide observance of Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. Day in Gadsden.
By Katie Bohannon, Staff Writer
The 35th annual city-wide observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, hosted by WMGJ Radio at Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church in Gadsden, celebrated the man whose devotion to change inspired others to walk in his footsteps for generations.
Local students from different schools and churches came together to form the Gadsden Inspirational Choir, whose powerful voices and beautiful harmonies moved the audience throughout the event. Under the direction of Katherine Hood and Rev. Reginald Huff, the choir sang several pieces including “Glory” and “Ride On, King Jesus.”
Senior Pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church Z. Andre Huff and Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church Pastor Rev. Roderick Thomas welcomed the audience to the celebration and introduced speakers.
Gadsden City High School student Sheldon I. Bush recited a poem by James Weldon Johnson entitled “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The poem reflected on how the past affects the present. Johnson’s words reminded listeners of God’s preservation and encouraged listeners to never forget His blessings and influence on their lives and their native land.
“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,” Bush said. “Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.”
Etowah County Probate Judge Scott W. Hassell followed Bush, and prayed with the audience, recognizing Dr. King’s contribution as an instrument of God’s glory and voice on the earth. Hassell prayed that the celebration would serve as a catalyst and spark for revival that begins in Etowah County where residents will turn to God and through Him, demonstrate righteousness and justice.
Inspired by the students’ singing, Former Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Gadsden-Etowah Chapter President Joseph Cole felt led to redirect his message. He emphasized the importance of youth involvement and the impact of younger generations but also addressed the audience as individuals. Cole illustrated how each year, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is celebrated and honored, and out all of Dr. King’s numerous accomplishments, the one speech that seems to stand out among the rest is his “I Have a Dream” speech. Cole also discussed how each year, including 40 years ago when he served as SCLC president in the same Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church, the song “We Shall Overcome” is sung. He asked the audience to examine themselves and determine what they as individuals are doing to make Dr. King’s dream come true and what they are doing within themselves to overcome.
Cole told that audience that members can take the first step to overcome that same night in their homes, churches and schools. He introduced a word to the congregation—forgiveness. Cole preached forgiveness of others, but also forgiveness of self as the only method of releasing all the strife and division that festered in the past.
“Once we forgive, we can get rid of all that frustration, all that hate and all that bitterness,” Cole said. “And then black and black can come together. White and white can come together. Then black and white can come together.”
WMGJ Radio’s operations manager David L. Lawson welcomed attendants to the celebration. He said that his uncle and WMGJ creator Floyd Donald would be extremely proud if he were witnessing the celebration, but Lawson felt comforted to share the stage with his cousin and Donald’s daughter, Dr. Tara Donald Walls, who spoke later in the evening. Donald began the MLK Celebration 35 years ago and Lawson paused to applaud the man who began an event of such grand importance.
Lawson reminded the audience of the church’s role in the civil rights movement and the significance of holding the MLK Celebration in a church that evening. Despite the disruption of communities, distress in America or turmoil in the world, Lawson noted that believers who submit themselves to God have control over their actions. He reflected on Cole’s message of forgiveness and described that as the civil rights movement began with the church, forgiveness begins with kindness. As Lawson drove to the celebration, Etowah County Sheriff’s Executive Assistant Tammy Bean called to let him know that she arrived at Mt. Pilgrim. Lawson said that Bean’s action was God’s grace and kindness and Etowah County Sheriff’s Department’s excitement to participate resulted in a warm invitation. Lawson stated that if people focused more often on kindness, they would not have to forgive as much as they do. He gave the audience a place to start.
“We can be so wrapped up in the things that fall against us in this work and progress for true equality that we end up becoming the things we are fighting,” Lawson said. “It’s a better reason why this place, God’s holy ground, we can have all kinds of great ideas in the world. Look where you are starting from. Welcome to this place, the church, and start from here.”
Etowah County Commission Chairman and District 5 Representative Jeffrey Washington presented a proclamation to WMGJ radio station and Lawson in recognition of WMGJ’s 35 years of annual observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The Etowah County Commission recognized Dr. King for his inspiration, leadership and commitment to the American struggle for civil rights.
Washington said that when he ran for county commission, he ran with the idea of wanting to unite District 5 and bring people together. He called District 5 to action and Etowah County to join themselves in love and harmony to create a community working together, united in strength rather than divided in weakness.
“The blood inside you is the same blood inside me,” Washington said. “Brothers and sisters, we are the same. Our differences do not make us superior or inferior to one another, but the differences bring us about in a collective effort of strength—that we benefit from it all.”
Gadsden City Councilman and District 3 representative Thomas Worthy brought greetings from city hall and a message of Gadsden’s progress over the last 15 years. He noted the importance of Gadsden’s black political leaders and the significance of two black judges, a black female city council president and a black county commission chairman. Worthy added that despite the achievements civil rights advocates made in Gadsden, the city still has a long road towards change.
“We have to do better as a community,” Worthy said. “We have to come together in unity. We had the [MLK] prayer breakfast this morning. We pray and we pray, but if we don’t put our boots on the ground and start doing something about our community, it’s for naught. So I ask of you, let’s come together, let’s work with each group and let’s don’t worry about who gets the credit. Because God will get the credit in the end.”
Renaissance House Director Fred Zackery introduced “Unsung Heroes,” a portion of the celebration that recognized individuals for their efforts that embodied the integrity, diligence and character Dr. King represented. Before giving awards, Zackery said that reconciliation in Gadsden comes from forgiveness and addressed the police chief for working with him. He also addressed the Gadsden Inspirational Choir students and young audience members, calling young people “the bench” that must step up and ensure that reconciliation does not get buried in democracy.
In the past, Zackery explained how the MLK Celebration honored foot soldiers, who were identified as people involved in the civil rights movement who stood firmly in their beliefs despite suffering persecution, physical harm or death. In 2020 however, the MLK Celebration expanded its definition of foot soldiers. Zackery introduced Chip Rowan as his brother, who he met years ago when Zackery advocated for a young intellectually challenged student who needed assistance that he was not receiving in the Gadsden school system. Rowan contacted Zackery and tutored the student for two years. Driven by his concern for the lack of employment opportunities for young adults with disabilities after public schooling, Rowan developed a special training program that transformed into the Beautiful Rainbow Café. Located in the Gadsden Public Library, the Café employs people of varying disabilities who receive paid wages and high school co-op credit for their work. The café placed 22 students in private employment and food facilities in the past two years. Zackary awarded Rowan’s service to these students with a plaque in his honor, declaring him a foot soldier.
On stage, Rowan expressed thanks for the recognition. He said that though he has won awards in the past, being honored on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day by the same community who began the celebration 35 years ago was truly overwhelming. Rowan considered Dr. King the true American hero, someone who inspired him and his family. Rowan tied the acceptance and unity Dr. King represented to his personal efforts at the café.
“You know people ask me ‘why did you name it Beautiful Rainbow Café?’” Rowan said. “Tonight I’m reminded why I named it Beautiful Rainbow Café, because together we are brothers and sisters, we are a beloved community and together we are a beautiful rainbow.”
Isaiah Hayes III was honored posthumously as a foot soldier. Zackery described Hayes as a renaissance man, listing his accomplishments in engineering and electrical maintenance and service as president of the local Civic League, active member of NAACP and Mount Zion Baptist Church of Attalla, chairman of the Incorporation Committee of Ridgeville. Portraying Hayes as a man who left footprints in the sands of time, Zackery presented Hayes’ award to his widow, Carolyn.
“When I read your husband’s resume and all the things he had done, [how he] put himself in harm’s way more often than not to serve his community, I want to say thank you for sharing him with this community,” Zackery told Mrs. Hayes.
Dr. Walls introduced the celebration’s keynote speaker Gadsden City School System Superintendent Tony Reddick. Walls grew up in Gadsden, at 428 North 9th Street down the road from Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church. She and her family represented her father during the celebration, which she said did not begin 35 years ago, but much earlier with how her father lived his life embracing kindness, service, change and unity. Walls remembered her father’s values and how they coincided with Dr. King. She remembered separate but equal and attested to how Gadsden has made many changes. But change is an ever-evolving process that Walls reflected on as she connected Dr. King’s “Blueprint” speech to Reddick’s life.
“A couple weeks before [Dr. King] passed away, he gave a speech to some junior high school children called ‘Blueprint,’” Walls said. “In that blueprint, he told them to see where you want to be and plot a course to get there. Mr. Reddick saw where he wanted to be and he plotted out a course.”
Reddick’s blueprints developed into the creation of genuine service in his role as superintendent. As Reddick took the stage, he described a legacy as what a person leaves behind for those they have served. At the celebration, Reddick shared how Dr. King’s legacy inspired his own.
In March of 1965, Reddick’s mother joined Dr. King in a march from the south end of Boston to Boston Common. At Boston Common, Reddick’s mother had a front row seat for Dr. King’s speech and while she never actually spoke to Dr. King, Reddick’s mother waved at him and he waved back. Reddick surmised that since he was with his mother, Dr. King was waving at him too. A week after this moment affected Reddick’s life, another moment changed him forever.
While crossing the street, Reddick was hit by a car and had a near death experience that resulted in blindness in his right eye. But this incident did not inhibit Reddick from envisioning who he wanted to become and how he wanted to serve others. From excelling in academics and the arts to dedicating himself to bettering his students at numerous schools to serving as superintendent, Reddick carried Dr. King’s blueprints for noble leadership with him.
“Although I have had some damage to my sight, my vision is still clear,” Reddick said.
Reddick compared the loss of his sight with the improvement of his hearing and shared some negative comments he heard about his role in Gadsden City schools. But negative comments never affected Reddick’s vision to benefit his students’ education and lives, to improve their learning as he gave them clothes, to increase ACT scores as he cut their hair, to buy them opportunities as he bought them cars. As Dr. King did so himself, Reddick turned that negativity into a lesson that encouraged a transformation and promoted the hope for change.
“It is my hope that these things that promote abasement in our community will soon create an uplifting in our community,” Reddick said. “Hope, defined by Webster’s, is a feeling that we have of expectation, a desire for things to happen. What is your hope? How do you intend to fulfill it? It can’t be through division. It can’t be through hatred. It can’t be through guile. It can’t be through any of those things. But nothing can be more accomplished without hope.”
Reddick applied Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to reiterate the themes of unity, vision and separatism that were discussed all day from the prayer breakfast to the celebration. Reddick associated the word dream with the future and quoted Dr. King when he said “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to make justice a reality.”
Using his knowledge of mathematics as a metaphor, Reddick illustrated how opposition and division destroys progress and suffocates positive change. He described how a circle is 360 degrees and the diameter of that circle is a line that connects one side of the circle to the other through the center. He implored the audience to consider the center of their own lives, the center of their joy.
“Whatever that [center] might be, if you are diametrically opposed to it, that means if you are on one side of it, I am on the other side of it,” Reddick said. “We can’t progress like that. Some of us share that circle. We can’t be diametrically opposed to one another and expect to achieve the thing that Dr. King challenged us to go after. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plain of dignity and discipline. Who are you?”
Reddick shared several Bible verses with the audience, connecting God’s word to the message of unification Dr. King preached. From Amos 3:3-8 Reddick read, “Can two walk together, unless they be agreed? Shall a trumpet be blown in the city and the people not be afraid? The lion has roared, who will not fear him? The Lord God hath spoken, who can but prophesy?”
Reddick heard the trumpets and responded to their call. He emphasized the trumpets blown throughout Gadsden and that now is the time for Etowah County to move forward. He encouraged Dr. King’s dream to live on in the hearts of all in the community as they practice the greatest force against the strife, turmoil and division that exists in the world—love.
“I’m talking about agape love, selfless love,” Reddick said. “The love God has for man and man is supposed to have for God. It’s important that we start showing love. [Love is] the only thing that can erase hate. Love conquers hate.”
A litany followed Reddick’s speech to conclude the celebration, focusing on the relationship between God’s word and Dr. King’s message that promoted love’s transformative power, character’s triumph over judgement, the faith that remains steadfast in opposing injustice and the unification that manifests when justice prevails.