The Dawn of a Dream
By: Scott B. Thompson, Sr. for Laurens Now Magazine

On a warm, windy, spring day a young, teenage, black boy, escorted by his teacher,  stepped off a bus in Dublin, Georgia.  That young man was there to recite a speech about freedom, it’s privileges and  rights, in an state-wide oratorical contest.  As an adult, he dedicated his life to the proposition that all people were equal regardless of the color of their skin.  Almost two dozen years to the day he left Dublin, that man tragically lay dying on the balcony of a Memphis, Tennessee hotel.   When they placed  him in his grave, the dream, which began to unfold right here in Dublin, Georgia, was not over, not by any means.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a fifteen-year-old and a soon to be  graduate of Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta. King won the local oratorical contest of the Atlanta “Colored” Elks Club. With that accomplishment, young King was invited to attend the state convention  of the Elks Club held in Dublin, Georgia the week after Easter Sunday.

During the convention, which conducted its business meetings in the Cummings Building in downtown Dublin, a contest between the winners of each club’s oratorical winners was held in the sanctuary of the First African Baptist Church on April 17, 1944.

The topic of King’s speech was “The Negro and the Constitution.”  In his 991-word essay,  King traced the history of the Negro from 1620 to his present day and outlining the injustices his people had suffered and the maltreatments he had personally witnessed.

Photo by Randall Gearhart. 

Those who witnessed King’s speech listened in awe of the inspirational words coming from such a young teenager’ They had no idea of what was dawning before them.  The judges detected that there was something different in the essay.  They saw the passion, the earnest pleas for equality, Christianity and right mixed with the glimpses of hope for the future.

Some years later, Dr. King wrote, “That night, Mrs. Bradley and I were on a bus returning to Atlanta. Along the way, some white passengers boarded the bus, and the white driver ordered us to get up and give the whites our seats. We didn't move quickly enough to suit him, so he began cursing us. I intended to stay right in that seat, but Mrs. Bradley urged me up, saying we had to obey the law. We stood up in the aisle for ninety miles to Atlanta. That night will never leave my memory. It was the angriest I have ever been in my life.”

That autumn, Martin entered Morehouse College as a fifteen-year-old freshman.  It was there that he was introduced to Dr. Brailsford Brazeal.  Brazeal, a native of the Montrose community of Laurens County, developed a bond with this young student, much younger than his other students.  As Dean of Men at Morehouse, Dr. Brazeal became somewhat of a mentor to King and is credited with being one of the persons who influenced the young King to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and become a minister.

In recommending King for acceptance to Crozer Theological Seminary, Dr. Brazeal, who taught King in his first year at Morehouse,  wrote to Crozer Dean Dr. Charles Batten, “ I regret that I can not at the moment let you know just where Messrs. King and ... rank in relationship to the other members of the senior class because we are not able to compile the list until the end of the present semester. We have checked on the record of each one of the men involved. Mr. King has a quality point average of 2.48 which is virtually midway between a "C" and a "B" average.  I might state that these two young men have developed considerably since beginning their studies at Morehouse College. They had to work hard in order to overcome a comparatively weak high school background. I believe that Mr. King has succeeded in doing this to a slightly greater degree than has ....  I believe that these young men will be able to take care of themselves scholastically and otherwise if they are given a chance to study at Crozer Theological Seminary.  I also believe that they will mix well interracially.”

Several years ago, the newly created Visit Dublin, GA,  began a project to commemorate Dr. Kings’ first public speech with an appropriate monument, one deserving of the historical impact of that day, some seven decades ago.  Last April, construction began on the project, but not after months and months of planning by the Tourism Council Director, Rebecca McWilliam.   McWilliam and her staff began by submitting ideas for grant proposals and seeking the cooperation of the City of Dublin, Dublin Downtown Development Authority, the members of First African Baptist Church, and the Laurens County Historical Society, all of which immediately and wholeheartedly signed on to the project.  After hundreds of hours of planning and with the financial and moral aid of Georgia Council for the Arts, the Georgia Department of Economic Development Tourism Division and many, many others who pledged their support from a few dollars to thousands of dollars, the first phase of the project is scheduled to be dedicated on April 17, 2017 on the 73rd anniversary of Dr. King’s speech. (photo by Randall Gearhart)

McWilliam and her staff have worked countless hours to make the project a reality.  A committee of community leaders, city personnel and church members was organized to formulate
plans for the monument and make it a monument that all of the community will be proud of.

The committee has been led by Dublin city councilman Jerry Davis and former councilwoman and civic leader, Julie Driger, who worked closely with Martin Luther King in the 1960s.

Davis, who is proud to be a part of the project, remarked, “I hope that his initiative by all of the partners of the project will serve to unite our entire community as Dr. King dreamed of.”  Citing the unity of this project as the reason why he returned home to Dublin, Davis is glad that “It is finally being recognized as a part of the rich history of Dublin.”

Driger (to the left of Dr. King)  worked as secretary for Dr. King in organizing and promoting meetings and marches.  She walked behind King on his March on Washington and got a close up glance of the Civil Rights movement in its early years.

Some half a century later, Driger fondly remembers Dr. King as a “very, polite, social, business person. He was always business like because he had a task that the good Lord had given him that he had to accomplish and he respected that, and a man narrowly focused on accomplishing his mission in a non-violent manner.

“Former DDDA Excutive Director, Joshua Kight said “ Seeing an opportunity to contribute to the recognition of MLK's civil rights address at the First African Baptist Church, the DDDA purchased the property across from church and worked with other organizations to transform that area into a monument site that our community, and our visitors, can learn from.  This monument, and the audio experience that is connected with it, will provide a lesson on how we can build a better future together. The effort itself has brought together a diverse group of people and organizations in a way that King would have been proud of. As caretakers of our historical downtown, the DDDA is proud to be among the many who have worked to make it a reality.”

Rebecca McWilliam sees the project as a wonderful opportunity for the City of Dublin. She proclaimed, “This project highlights the beauty of Dublin, where a gathering of minds and hearts have come together to build a monument to honor an icon, telling Dr. King's story and his Dublin experience in a dynamic, modern way to inspire future generations.”

Last year Corey Barksdale, an Atlanta artist, completed his mural on the wall of an old grocery store building which stands by the proposed plaza.  Barksdale sees that his mural and the monument itself are something distinctive and of lasting historical importance to our society.

The end of the first phase is not the end of the project.  Additional improvements to the site include a plaza, landscaping, sidewalks, and ADA improvements as well as audio and visual aids to visitors.  The application, compiled by Deborah  Stanley of the City of Dublin,  to designate and add the site to the  National Register of Historic Places is set to be approved later this year.

Recreation of Dr. King's speech photo by Scott B. Thompson, Sr 

And, the dream continues. 

Here is Martin Luther King's speech:

     Negroes were first brought to America in 1620 when England legalized slavery both in England and the colonies and America; the institution grew and thrived for about 150 years upon the backs of these black men. The empire of King Cotton was built and the southland maintained a status of life and hospitality distinctly its own and not anywhere else.

     On January 1, 1863 the proclamation emancipating the slaves which had been decreed by President Lincoln in September took effect--millions of Negroes faced a rising sun of a new day begun. Did they have habits of thrift or principles of honesty and integrity? Only a few! For their teachings and duties had been but two activities--love of Master, right or wrong, good or bad, and loyalty to work. What was to be the place for such men in the reconstruction of the south?

     America gave its full pledge of freedom seventy-five years ago. Slavery has been a strange paradox in a nation founded on the principles that all men are created free and equal. Finally after tumult and war, the nation in 1865 took a new stand--freedom for all people. The new order was backed by amendments to the national constitution making it the fundamental law that thenceforth there should be no discrimination anywhere in the "land of the free" on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.

     Black America still wears chains. The finest Negro is at the mercy of the meanest white man. Even winners of our highest honors face the class color bar. Look at a few of the paradoxes that mark daily life in America. Marian Anderson was barred from singing in the Constitution Hall, ironically enough, by the professional daughters of the very men who founded this nation for liberty and equality. But this tale had a different ending. The nation rose in protest, and gave a stunning rebuke to the Daughters of the American Revolution and a tremendous ovation to the artist, Marian Anderson, who sang in Washington on Easter Sunday and fittingly, before the Lincoln Memorial. Ranking cabinet members and a justice of the supreme court were seated about her. Seventy-five thousand people stood patiently for hours to hear a great artist at a historic moment. She sang as never before with tears in her eyes. When the words of "America" and "Nobody Knows De Trouble I Seen" rang out over that great gathering, there was a hush on thee sea of uplifted faces, black and white, and a new baptism of liberty, equality and fraternity. That was a touching tribute, but Miss Anderson may not as yet spend the night in any good hotel in America. Recently she was again signally honored by being given the Bok reward as the most distinguished resident of Philadelphia. Yet she cannot be served in many of the public restaurants of her home city, eveen after it has declared her to be its best citizen.

     So, with their right hand they raise to high places the great who have dark skins, and with their left, they slap us down to keep us in "our places." "Yes, America you have stripped me of my garments, you have robbed me of my precious endowment."

     We cannot have an enlightened democracy with one great group living in ignorance. We cannot have a healthy nation with one tenth of the people ill-nourished, sick, harboring germs of disease which recognize no color lines--obey no Jim Crow laws. We cannot have a nation orderly and sound with one group so ground down and thwarted that it is almost forced into unsocial attitudes and crime. We cannot be truly Christian people so long as we flaunt the central teachings of Jesus: brotherly love and the Golden Rule. We cannot come to full prosperity with one great group so ill-delayed that it cannot buy goods. So as we gird ourselves to defend democracy from foreign attack, let us see to it that increasingly at home we give fair play and free opportunity for all people.

     Today thirteen million black sons and daughters of our forefathers continue the fight for the translation of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments from writing on the printed page to an actuality. We believe with them that "if freedom is good for any it is good for all," that we may conquer southern armies by the sword, but it is another thing to conquer southern hate, that if the franchise is given to Negroes, they will be vigilant and defend even with their arms, the ark of federal liberty from treason and destruction by her enemies.

     The spirit of Lincoln still lives; that spirit born of the teachings of the Nazarene, who promised mercy to the merciful, who lifted the lowly, strengthened the weak, ate with publicans, and made the
captives free. In the light of this divine example, the doctrines of demagogues shiver in their chaff. Already closer understanding links Saxon and Freedman in mutual sympathy.

     America experiences a new birth of freedom in her sons and daughters; she incarnates the spirit of her martyred chief. Their loyalty is repledged; their devotion renewed to the work He left unfinished. My heart throbs anew in the hope that inspired by the example of Lincoln, imbued with the spirit of Christ, they will cast down the last barrier to perfect freedom. And I with my brother of blackest hue possessing at last my rightful heritage and holding my head erect, may stand beside the Saxon--a Negro--and yet a man!


James Chatman said…
Do you know if any of Dr. King's family will be here?
Scott Thompson said…
James, I am not sure. I know that they have been contacted.
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