By Brandon Martin
In the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, community leaders in Martinsville-Henry County gathered for a public forum to discuss how to realize the late civil rights leader’s vision of “the beloved community.”
The event was hosted at Morning Star Holy Church by the Rev. Tyler Millner, pastor of the church, and it featured the panel of Jennifer Bowles, vice mayor of the City of Martinsville; Lisa Millner, assistant superintendent at Henry County Public Schools; and Garrett Dillard, director of the Center for Community Learning.
Panelists spoke at length about King’s vision of a “beloved community” and how racial relations can be improved in the local area.
“The intergenerational impact of Dr. King’s legacy cannot be stated enough,” Bowles said. “His tireless commitment to creating a better society continues to permeate the opportunities afforded to us today. Through his sacrifices, we are reminded how far we have come and how far we have to go to make his dreams and our hopes of a better society a reality.”
To truly live up to the dream of King, Bowles called on the entire community to do its part.
“When we talk about a beloved community, it’s not just a community of my friends, my neighbors. It’s everybody that has to be involved,” she said. “Despite the differences we may have, everyone in Martinsville and Henry County has a responsibility to each other to ensure that we are doing our part to make our community a better place. Now is the time to have difficult conversations with others that are genuine, respective, and productive. Even when these conversations bring about observations and feelings that we may not understand or relate to, we are challenged to listen and learn for the future generations.”
According to Lisa Millner, creating a loving environment in the community starts with the schools.
“When I think about love, I’m thinking about children that come to school and they form those relationships with teachers, cafeteria workers, janitors, and bus drivers,” she said. “When they come, they need to know that people care about them. If they come and feel more loved, they will be more apt to share how they truly feel, and they will be ready to learn.”
For Dillard, putting the love back in “beloved community” should be the primary focus.
“We tried passing laws. We tried integration. We tried mediation. We tried electing the right folks, but none of these attempts have led to full equality for all Americans. Love is the only option that we haven’t exhausted,” Dillard said. “Let’s let love guide our actions. Let’s let love be our voice of reason. Love is the only thing that can drive out hate.”
Before that can happen, there are issues that must first be addressed.
“I think the replacement word for love is truth,” Dillard said. “Let’s just be honest. If we do that, then we can make America a much better place, but as long as we deny history, deny the impact of slavery, deny the impact of sharecropping, deny the impact of ‘white flight,’ then we are never going to get to fix these racial issues because you are working without the truth.”
Bowles also believes in more transparent history.
“We are just being asked to be respected and have the same opportunities and privilege that was granted to you,” Bowles said. “A lot of people oftentimes say not to think about slavery because it’s in the past, but that was 400 years that people had an advantage over us. People still look down on us today because of the aftereffects of slavery. We don’t talk about red lining. We don’t talk about generational wealth.”
One way of doing this is by focusing on equity issues within the community.
“It’s our job to ensure we are providing equitable opportunities for our students,” Lisa Millner said. “I may need one thing, but you may need something else to be successful. It’s giving students what they need individually to be successful.”
Another aspect of creating a more loving community is political activism by marginalized groups, according to Dillard.
“One, we have to admit that we have a race relations issue. The other thing is, we need more diverse representation in our decision-making entities,” Dillard said. “This is a charge to minority communities. Put yourself in position to run for some of these elected positions because if you don’t run then you can’t complain that the boards aren’t diverse enough.”
Dillard cautioned against remaining passive in the midst of racism.
“The last thing I will say is standing firm against racism, unfair biases and publicly speaking out against those who promote racism,” he said. “Give them the chance but let them know that you are not going to accept that.”
Bowles said part of the problem is some people still aren’t listening.
“One of the most problematic statements that I hear, even though I know it comes from a good place, is ‘I don’t see color,’” she said. “By saying that you don’t see color, that’s saying that you are ignoring the issues and the problems that we face.”
True healing will require two-way communication, Lisa Millner said.
“To have that beloved community, we have to be willing to communicate freely and feel safe in our schools,” she said. “Sometimes that may not happen because of negative experiences they may have experienced. We need you to communicate with us so we can make things better for your children.”
But achieving a “beloved community” won’t come without opposition.
King “spoke love, he spoke unity and he spoke equality. Ironically, the people of his time called him a communist, a socialist, a hatemonger, but he is seen by history as a great man of love and peace,” Dillard said. “That’s something that we have to remember. Many people, during their time, were labeled one way or another, but once all the facts come out and the information is uncovered, you get a true definition of who that person was.”
While he was originally demonized, “Dr. King is more beloved today than during his lifetime,” Bowles said. “it is important for us to objectively reflect on how America’s treatment towards Dr. King is a microcosm of its treatment towards historically marginalized groups.”
To acknowledge the accomplishments of King, Dillard is calling for more celebrations on MLK Day.
“I would like to encourage everyone to celebrate this day,” Dillard said. “We have many holidays on the American calendar and we celebrate every holiday. Let’s make Dr. King a day that we celebrate. You celebrate Dr. King Day by doing some kind of community service.”