Members of the Dyer County chapter of the NAACP braved temperatures in the low 30s to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the 27th annual observance of the federal holiday honoring the civil rights activist. The local celebration was moved to a morning event this year so participants could join together following the march to watch President Barack Obama publicly take the oath of office for his second term.
Participants began the morning with marches from Ross United Methodist Church and the Bruce Community Center. The two groups met at the courthouse between 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m.
Dyer County Mayor Richard Hill welcomed those attending the event, opening the foyer of the courthouse for the ceremony and offering participants shelter from the frigid weather. A photo was taken on the steps and the celebration moved inside.
Dyersburg Mayor John Holden read a joint proclamation by the city of Dyersburg and the Dyer County government. The document encouraged residents to use the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as a "day on," not a "day off" and to participate in the King Day of Service.
James "Tiger" Henning provided his rendition of King's "I Have a Dream" speech.
Pastor James Luvene served as the featured speaker of the celebration.
Luvene, the youngest of 13 children, was raised in southern Mississippi and recounted his experience integrating Central Jr. High School in the fifth grade.
"I am a child of the civil rights movement," said Luvene, who said he and one of his brothers were chosen to participate in the "Freedom of Choice" plan designed to fight the upcoming Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling. "My family was chosen (to participate) and my brother John and I were sent to Central with five other children. We went and it wasn't easy. That fifth-grade year, I learned two things: I learned how to read and I learned how to fight."
Luvene commended his teacher at Central, the principal's wife, who volunteered to ease the transition for African American children entering the school. Luvene later learned that Mrs. Hardin took the position when several other educators refused to allow black children in their classrooms.
Luvene also shared the admiration he still holds for his parents, who worked hard to make ends meet for their large family but did not forego their own beliefs.
"My father worked as a janitor. My mother was a maid," said Luvene. "My mother worked for two doctors in Hattiesburg. She had worked for them for over 30 years. On the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, my mother was crying."
Luvene said his mother's employer asked her why she was crying and offered no sympathy for the loss of King and responded to her request for the day off with an ultimatum.
"He said, 'Well, Ann, you can have the rest of the day off. But if you take it, you won't have a job to come back to.' My mother took her apron off and handed it him. With 13 children at home, she gave up her job," said Luvene. "I always tell people, 'I don't know how successful I will be, but if I have half the courage of my mother. ...' My parents were in the Mississippi Dr. King was talking about, they were on the front lines."
"We don't often give Dr. King enough credit for what he saw America looking like," said Luvene. "Yes, there is injustice. But that injustice should never cause our families to fall apart. He knew that to make the playing field level was all we needed as people of color. We didn't need a handout. I have two messages today: 1. Do a check-up of our personal life because if we can't live holy, God can't do much with us. 2. For those who are empowered -- to those who make their money off the backs of the poor -- take a warning from James (5:4)."
NAACP Dyer County Chapter President Connell King offered words of encouragement before a benediction by Sesson.
"Today is a day I think Dr. King would be proud of," said King. "Together, we can stand and we can make this country as they intended it to be. Let's remember what Dr. King intended for all of us."