Martin Luther King Day 2021 in Tyler, Texas, by J.D. Meyer

This year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day was held in the front yard of the new location for the Texas African-American Museum–coincidentally on MLK Blvd. in a former fire house. Martin Luther King BLVD is the major East-West Street in North Tyler, a predominantly Black neighborhood in Tyler, which includes Texas College–an HBCU and the first institute of higher education in this city.  The keynote speaker was Rev. Dr. Orenthia Mason.

The opening prayer was delivered by Bishop Laramie Jackson. It included a bridge to the past and a bridge to bring people together—struggles and achievements. Demerick Tezino sang “Amazing Grace.” LaToyia Jordan offered welcome before Gloria Washington announced the occasion. She reminisced about an early MLK Day observation in Jasper, Texas–25 years ago after an ice storm. “So we may be outdoors, socially distant during this coronavirus pandemic, but it was a rougher to hold a big event back then.” Plenty of chuckles responded.

Today included a celebration for having a new-and-improved location for the African-American Museum; it used to be further north in an abandoned elementary school, but now it’s on a major street. The late councilman, Ed Moore, was instrumental in getting the deal between the city and the museum, and a cornerstone has been planned in his honor. Shirley McKellar has become his successor as councilwoman. Some reconstruction is planned, and they will need donations.

Pastor Nicholas McGrew noted that he memorized the famous, “I Have a Dream” speech –so did his daughter! “We stand in the shadow of the Emancipation Proclamation, but 100 years later we still stand in an island of poverty in an ocean of the rich. To be satisfied, we need to have mobility, vote, and have justice. We still have the dream despite frustrations. Let us be judged by the content of our character; that’s one of MLK’s most famous sayings. Let freedom ring! We need to have integration of races and creeds. Then we’ll be free at last.”

Ms. Verlinda Stanton sang, “”Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the African-American National Anthem. She has worked with such stars as George Clinton and James Earl Jones. She has sung at an event for President Barack Obama too. 

Stanley Cofer introduced the keynote speaker, Dr. Orenthia Mason. He observed “the integrated crowd as a dream of Martin Luther King. Esteem others higher than yourself; it’s like giving flowers to those who are still alive. All men are created equal.” Rev. Mason taught in Tyler ISD for 27 years. She was also a principal and on several boards. She retired as minister of St. James Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) church. By the way, Texas College is a CME institution of higher education.

Reverend Orenthia Mason gave a scholarly and “hard-hitting” speech. She noted our continued struggle for freedom and congratulated the museum and city. She asked, “What condition is our condition since MLK’s, ‘I Have a Dream’ speech?  We live through recurring cycle of racism, extremists, and hatred. Malcolm X told us to face reality, not a blurred version of the truth. Justice, whoever says it, benefits humanity.” To me, that sounds like a great critique of the ad hominem argument; ignore the idea because of disliking the speaker. Robert Kennedy asserted, “We should make an effort to understand others,” according to Rev. Mason.

She continued, “What condition is our condition in? When minorities vote more than average, it’s labeled as fraud. We are in perilous times.” Black kids are being threatened again. Reverend Mason recalled walking to school in groups with other Black kids, back in the 60s. That was because they could get attacked anyway—sometimes with baseball bats! She recalled, “You had to be better than best.  How about the average? The struggles and heart aches of the past are still being felt. We have a long way to go to reach the Promised Land. “

Reflecting on the present, Rev. Mason lamented, “Artifacts of the past include menacing white drivers ‘varooming’ their cars behind her on South Broadway! Many Tylerites don’t even know where Texas College is located.” {It’s located at 2404 N. Grand Avenue, north of MLK Blvd]. She felt more respected during segregation. “The ‘haves’ have more. We’re in the ‘midnight of life,’ ‘strangers in a strange land.’ Let’s sit down at the Welcome Table. Listen; look at character, intellect, and ability. All of us should be who we ought to be.”

Rev. Mason is proud to be a resident of north Tyler. She has been a member of Leadership Tyler, an integrated local think-tank. “We’ve never been more divided in the USA, but we’ll overcome some day. United we stand; divided we fall.”  She concluded with a quote by Henry David Thoreau, “It’s never too late to give up prejudice. Speak and listen.”

After another excellent song by Demetrick Tezino, Clarence Shackelford showed a model of the Martin Luther King, Jr. statue in Washington, DC. Leroy Francis donated the statue. Then Mr. Shackelford announced the Award Presentations. Mr. Shackelford, a noted photographer and Army veteran, is the founder of the Texas African-American Museum.  Dr. Donna Pitts, a dentist won an award. She’s a graduate of Prairie View A&M and Howard; both are HBCUs. Our new Vice-President, Kamala Harris, is a Howard grad too; it’s located in Washington, DC. Dr. Pitts works for Franklin Dentists in Tyler, and she’s a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority (pink and green colors). Vicki Betts, a librarian, won an award for historical research. (By the way, she’s a little White lady). Rodney L. Atkins also won an award for historical research by writing two books: Remembering When We Were Colored in Tyler, Texas and The History of African-American Teachers in Tyler ISD. He’s connected with the Victory Temple Church.Andre Crawford won the Golden Eagle Award for being the current director of the Tyler Barber College—the first Black institution of its kind in the USA! Tyler Barber College spread to other states. Barber shops have a long history of being community gathering places in Black neighborhoods.

Mayor Don Warren was invited to give some comments. Mayor Warren noted that when he saw an episode of Good Morning, America, kids quoted Martin Luther King, and then asked, “What’s wrong with America?” Mayor Warren, previously a long-time councilman, “wants to work with all of Tyler, so it will be unified and peaceful. “

The program concluded with miscellaneous remarks. A new Councilman for Section 1 said he used to be a fire chief in Tyler. Ed Thompson will do the construction work, and LLC will be the architect on the new museum. It is 5000 square feet—far bigger than the previous museum. The goal is $300K in renovations, but some of the money would go to outdoors construction–such as a playground and outdoor dining area. I suggested building an urban garden to Stanley Cofer, and I later sent my article on the topic. Lunch trucks would be invited as two were here for the festivities. Somebody was selling an African-American News Journal, based on newspaper articles for over a century. If the Texas African-American Museum gets 10K likes on Facebook, then they can have some advertisements there. TAAM is up to 5K likes at the time of the MLK Festival. Sadly, a minister noted that his kids were threatened in Whitehouse lately, a town just southeast of Tyler.

The 2021 Martin Luther King Day celebration was really different this year because of acquiring a better museum and having a North Tyler program. Due to the pandemic, there wasn’t the usual march down Broadway Avenue, followed by the program at Immaculate Conception Catholic Cathedral. Nevertheless, this year’s program was very uplifting and indicated real opportunities for Northside Revitalization that is now being pursued by the City of Tyler.  

Footnote: You can check out the edited version that was published in The Tyler Loop also. Thanks to Jane Neal. It’s posted at the top under the title.

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