Toledoans at MLK dedication recall segregationWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | email@example.com
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Jessie Pullie remembers feeling nervous when a car with its lights on would slowly drive past his grandfather’s home in rural Mississippi every night.
“Grandpa would turn his lights off,” Pullie said. “It was scary. No one told us kids anything.”
It was the 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and the men in the car were looking for any suspicious gatherings.
The family, who worked as sharecroppers, regularly tuned their radio to a Memphis station, where 12-year-old Pullie first heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak.
“He would talk about the nonviolence movement and people out struggling for change and justice,” Pullie said. “He was a great mentor and a great preacher.”
King’s speeches were inspiring, but segregation was still the rule in day-to-day Mississippi life.
Pullie recalls his grandfather addressing all white men, including young boys, as “sir,” while they called him by his first name. He remembers using the back entrance to the doctor’s office and having to order a hamburger through the window of a restaurant rather than sit at the counter.
“I remember one time I almost tried to go inside, but my cousin said, ‘You can’t go in there,’” Pullie said. “Basically, that’s the way it was.”
At age 18, looking for better opportunities, Pullie moved to Toledo, where he found a job at Ford and met his wife, Jackie, a waitress at her family’s soul food restaurant on North Detroit Avenue.
“I was working in place of someone who had called off sick,” Jackie recalled. “I was supposed to be off that morning, but I’m glad I wasn’t. Otherwise, he might have married my cousin.”
Dedication in D.C.
More than four decades after first hearing King’s voice as a boy in the South, Pullie and his wife celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary with a trip to Washington, D.C., to witness the dedication ceremony for the recently unveiled Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
The couple was part of a group of 35 Toledo area residents who took a weekend bus ride to the capital, joining tens of thousands of others who flocked there Oct. 16 to honor King’s legacy.
The four-acre, $120 million memorial — the first on the National Mall to honor a black leader — features a granite statue of King standing with his arms folded, emerging from a “Stone of Hope” and gazing across the tidal basin toward the Jefferson Memorial. A thin entrance path through a granite “Mountain of Despair” represents the struggles King faced in the pursuit of social equality and peace. The memorial also features two inscription walls filled with King quotes.
Among the dozens of speakers and performers at the dedication were President Barack Obama, King’s children, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Tommy Hilfiger, poet Nikki Giovanni, actress Cicely Tyson and many others.
“It’s honoring a historic person,” said trip member Lisa Griffin, who called the experience a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “He made the way for colored people to do a whole lot of things.”
“His dream changed our lives,” her daughter Marlydia King added.
It was the first visit to Washington, D.C., for both.
University of Toledo freshman Allaina Peraza, a history buff who plans to major in African-American studies, said it meant a lot to her to be at the dedication.
“I have freedoms that, when my grandmother came up from Mississippi, I wouldn’t have had,” said the 18-year-old, who recently registered to vote for the first time. “It’s just a symbol of freedom. I was looking forward to seeing it this whole week.”
Verna Anthony of Toledo treated herself to the trip as a 70th birthday present.
“I have been waiting on this and waiting on this and waiting on this,” Anthony said. “1968 until now has been a long time, but we finally got here. Eventually I knew it was going to get here; I was just hoping I’d be here to see it. I wouldn’t have missed this for anything.”
The best part was seeing people of so many different backgrounds celebrating harmoniously, Anthony said.
“This is like the United Nations here,” Anthony said. “This is just a prelude to equal opportunities for everybody. It’s not as good as no color to be seen, but it’s getting there. It’s just so beautiful.”
Exciting and uplifting
Trip organizer Michael Huggins said the day was moving, exciting and uplifting.
“I think everybody enjoyed it. I can’t wait to take it back to Toledo and share it,” sad Huggins, who also organized a bus trip to Washington, D.C., for Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. “I think the youth that went down fulfilled the legacy they had heard on King. I could see it on their faces. They were really excited. I think we all got what we were looking for.”
Ben Williams, executive director of Ben E. Williams Youth Services and a longtime local coach and educator, was also instrumental in organizing the trip.
His daughter, Leah Williams, who rode the bus to Washington, D.C., said her father shares King’s passion for equal rights.
“It was important to him that the accomplishments of Dr. King be recognized and that there be people, especially young people, from our community there,” Williams said.
Ben Williams said organizing the trip was challenging, but rewarding.
“We worked so hard, especially Michael Huggins, to try and create awareness. It was very challenging trying to get the needed financial support to pay for the bus rental and make this program a reality, but fortunately there were enough people who saw the importance of what we were trying to do,” Williams said. “I look at Martin Luther King and see what he stood for and what he endured for all people. It touched the whole world. Many great leaders have sacrificed big portions of their lives to make things better, not only for our people but all people, and I think Martin Luther King epitomizes that. He left a legacy for us to reach for.”
Ed Blankenship, a trustee at Ben E. Williams Youth Services, said that although the trip didn’t attract as many people as organizers had originally hoped, those involved were passionate and diverse.
“We were fortunate to have a crosssection of people who helped out — Democrats, Republicans, all different sizes, shapes and colors of people,” Blankenship said. “One of the things we talked about was what sorts of people will we get on the trip. Will it be people who are older that actually remember King when he was alive, or will it be people in their 40s and younger who only know what they read in history books? I think we got a nice crosssection of people and on a small scale brought diverse people together to try and accomplish something and we did and that’s pretty cool.”
Donations from former Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner and BET radio personality Darian “Big Tigger” Morgan as well as the Rev. Stanley Clark and the congregation at United Vision Baptist Church, Indiana Avenue Missionary Baptist Church, local businesses, government officials, labor unions, community members and others made the trip possible, Huggins said.
Finkbeiner addressed the group before the bus departed, telling riders they were on their way to celebrate one of the most respected individuals ever to walk and talk on this earth.
Toledoan Josh Fowler said watching the dedication made him proud and he hopes sentiments expressed during the ceremony will be honored upon everyone’s return home.
“I think the trip proves people can unite for a common purpose and a common cause, but it’s still vital to sustain that unity,” Fowler said. “Oftentimes, trips are over and we just wait on the next trip. I believe it’s time to step up to the plate and exude the characteristics of this trip and what it represented, to be active in the community and raise social awareness.”
Others with Toledo connections were also at the event.
Toledo native Erika Manuel came to Washington, D.C., with a group of students from Tennessee State University in Nashville, where she is a senior.
“Not a lot of people get memorials in their names, especially African-Americans,” said Manuel, a Woodward High School graduate. “I can’t even imagine living in a time when people say I’m not good enough because I’m black or a female. I challenge things like that. I don’t know if I would have been as peaceful as Dr. King, so I admire him for that.”
Kristin McMillan was at the ceremony with a group from Morgan State University in Baltimore. The Cincinnati native attended UT for two years before transferring.
“Martin Luther King means freedom to me,” said McMillian, who wanted to come so she can one day tell her children she was at the historic event. “He showed the way.”
The dedication was originally scheduled for Aug. 28, the anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but was postponed due to Tropical Storm Irene.