Let me take you for a walk down Main Street.
There are four churches here on Main Street – the first is Manly Memorial Baptist, you see that one on the right, right up front. Manly is a local family name hereabouts and the Manly Mem. website will tell you this church community goes back to 1841 and is supporting work in the Ebola crisis today.
Right across the street from Manly Memorial is Buck’s Barber Shop in that little blue and white house. Main Street is a definite mix of architecture. You can’t see Manly’s dome in this photo, but it is impressive. The dome, I mean.
A ways down the street on the left is the United Methodist Church, where we had Girl Scout meetings in fifth grade and earned our Sewing badge. Across from there is the county administrative building – used to be a department store that when I was a little girl had separate bathrooms for “white” and “colored.” Next to that is the library, and just down the street on the right is Lexington Presbyterian Church, where T.J. “Stonewall” Jackson was an elder, even though he was still quite young, before the Civil War.
But the church whose steeple you can barely see, down near the foot of the Main Street hill, is the one I’m most interested in. It is the only church on Main Street founded by a black congregation, and it’s where we met on the night of Jan. 17 to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.
And that birthday is the reason I took this picture from the viewpoint I did. I wanted you to see the flags. Maybe you can see that there are American flags and Virginia flags. There are no replicas of Confederate battle flags, and this was the subject of very heated debate a couple of years ago, when the Sons of Confederate Veterans went before City Council to request permission to hang replica flags on the city flag posts for Lee-Jackson Day, a Virginia state holiday that coincidentally falls on the Friday before MLK Day each year. It’s true that Lee-Jackson Day came first, but the Council said no. You can march carrying Confederate flags and wear Confederate grey. You can fly whatever flag you choose on your own property. But not on the city streets.
So the presence of the American and Virginia flags, which occupy every pole from the south end of town to the north and on across Veterans Bridge, are seen as a conscious statement of the city’s choice.
But the debate continues. Virginia Flaggers, as they are now known, picket periodically at the foot of the hill below Lee Chapel, where Robert E. Lee is buried. This year’s Lee-Jackson Day parade began as usual at Jackson’s grave in Stonewall Jackson Cemetery at the south end of town and processed down Main Street to Lexington Presbyterian, where a memorial service was held. Civil War history lectures were advertised by the SCV on banners across Main Street , as were Martin Luther King celebrations, by Washington & Lee University, which had earlier removed Confederate flag replicas from the Lee Chapel, closed the chapel for renovations, and scheduled 10 days of events honoring King.
I went to the opening evening of the MLK celebration, a simple service that is held annually at First Baptist Church, that one at the foot of Main Street. A rock quintet known as the MLK Combo opened the evening with a stunning soul rendition of “This Land is Your Land.” The service consists of the reading, in sections, of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, interwoven with music by W&L’s three a cappella groups. It is moving beyond words. But the evening begins with the whole congregation/audience on its feet singing “We Shall Overcome.”
As we began to sing, an African-American woman across the aisle from me stepped into the aisle and held out her hand. I stepped into the aisle and took her hand in mine, then reached to my right and took my friend’s hand. Everyone around us and behind us joined hands, and we sang, “Deep in my heart, I do believe …”
And we sat down and listened as Dr. King’s words rolled out like a mighty river.
His dream still holds unfulfilled promise, and until his message is as present in the media and in our minds as are the scandals on college campuses or the gridlock in Congress, his work — and ours — is not done.
Meanwhile, I thank my neighbor for holding out her hand.