Ethan Steinquest

Special to the News

Community members gather for brunch at Pickett Rucker United Methodist Church on Saturday as part of the Wilson County Black History Committee’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration.

Neither wind nor rain could stop Wilson County’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, as dozens took to the streets by motorcade for a unity march on Saturday.

Participants traveled a short route through the city ending at the historic Pickett Chapel, and joined together for brunch and a program at Pickett Rucker United Methodist Church.

“I grew up in this community … I’ll never forget everything that went on during that time,” Raymond Burns, the program speaker and pastor of Baird’s Grove Missionary Baptist Church, said. “I came in at the very end of the racial injustice that was going on, and I thank God for my parents who raised us to honor and respect every race and nationality.”

Burns recalled high school summer programs that helped build relationships between students in the wake of integration, and the impact of Market Street as a hub for the black community. However, he added that the segregationist attitudes of the 1960s should not be viewed as a thing of the past.

“No matter what anyone says, don’t be fooled, because our young people need to know,” he said. “Even though we’re supposed to be in a better place, Martin Luther King did it in a way to involve change with peace. Well, if that is the case, then why when Colin Kaepernick did a peaceful protest, did it cause so much hell? It caused so much hell because we’re not as far as we think we are.”

Lebanon Mayor Bernie Ash, one of multiple elected officials who spoke during the program, said he was struck in adulthood by how his upbringing differed from children living in the city’s black community.

Students from Scholar Drum Academy perform at Pickett Rucker United Methodist Church on Saturday during the Wilson County Black History Committee’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration.

“I realized there was a separate part of Lebanon that I didn’t grow up in,” he said. “I grew up in a school that had plenty of books and plenty of teachers. Other children in the same town weren’t so lucky. They had great teachers, they had great parents, but they didn’t have the finest of buildings and books and material. They grew up with what was leftover from the other side of town.”

Ash was 16 years old when King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech, and began learning more about the impact of racial discrimination while attending university.

“When I was going to Cumberland University, I took a psychology class and the teacher told us about another professor — a black woman with a doctorate in psychiatry, who taught at Cumberland,” he said. “She could not go into the department store downtown and try on a dress. Her small children could not go into a public restroom and relieve themselves.”

Ash said that although society has progressed since the days of segregation, there is still work to be done in achieving King’s vision of equality.

That sentiment carried throughout the program, which the Wilson County Black History Committee has organized alongside the march for the past eight years.

“What we’ve done is to really try and keep this focused as a community celebration of Dr. King,” Wilson County Black History Committee President Mary Harris said. “Putting it together is about communicating with everybody, and it’s a team effort.”

This year’s community partners included Neuble Monument Funeral Home, Lebanon Special School District, Lebanon Fire Department, the governments of Wilson County and Lebanon, WCOR/WANT Gospel Show, Cedars of Lebanon Baptist Church, Lebanon Sanitation Department, Scholar Drum Academy, Amazon, Pickett Rucker United Methodist Church and the Lebanon Police Department.

“Each member of the community is responsible for different parts of the event,” Harris said. “I’d like for us to get back to having a youth day as well, where kids from all the different churches can come in and have a celebration of their own.”

Program speaker Raymond Burns, the pastor of Baird’s Grove Missionary Baptist Church, discusses the importance of youth education in combatting racism and its influence on society.

Although the Wilson County Black History Committee has led the event for several years, it has roots in the MLK Task Force established by Elder Brewer Hall, the former pastor at Cedars of Lebanon Baptist Church, in 1986.

“Seeing so many people here means a lot to me,” Hall said. “This didn’t catch on when we first started, but it grew to where we didn’t have room for the meal in our church. We used to give out scholarships every year, and later on we added the march.”

The march has become a fixture of the event, and Compassionate Hands Executive Director John Grant recalls taking part for the last decade.

“I got involved through the local ministry group,” he said. “The churches in this community are very connected, and you see that here. It’s a way for us to come together and honor the legacy of a great man who fought for peace.”

The event remains the county’s only large-scale celebration of King’s life and legacy, and although Harris hopes to see more of them develop she appreciates the community’s involvement.

“I’m really grateful to see everyone here,” she said. “It’s a blessing to have this many people come out on a day like today and support this.”