Pastor Michelle C. Thomas drew many comparisons between today and 1968 in her impassioned speech to attendees of the 26th annual “I Have a Dream” celebration at Douglass Community Center Monday.
Thomas, who serves as pastor of Holy & Whole Life Changing Ministries in Lansdowne, was the keynote speaker for the ceremony following the march from the Loudoun County Courthouse. This year’s theme was “Unity, Not Hate.”
It has been an interesting few days in the nation, as well as a locally, she noted. Thomas pointed to recent remarks by President Donald J. Trump, which many have denounced as racist, where he used choice words to describe some third-world countries in a closed-door meeting with Congressional leaders last week. This weekend, several communities throughout Loudoun were also targeted with fliers and propaganda from people claiming to be with the Ku Klux Klan.
“Today is looking like yesterday,” Thomas remarked. “I can’t tell the difference between 1968 and 2018.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary, come April 4, of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. And, Thomas noted, the nation again has heightened racial tensions and many communities are finding themselves at odds with federal legislation, including controversial immigration reform laws. Thomas pointed to her own past, being raised as a child of immigrants. Her parents immigrated from Jamaica in the 1960s, settling in Georgia, and making a positive impact on their communities. Her father, she noted, became the first black electrician at General Motors.
“I know about immigration; I lived that life,” she said. “They act like these people don’t contribute to this country but we do. We don’t just contribute; we built it.”
Thomas said she was bothered less by Trump’s remarks and more by “what people didn’t say.”
“There’s not been a collective call to action,” she pointed out.
Thomas harkened back to King’s historic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which he penned in 1963 while incarcerated after leading a series of marches and demonstrations in the Alabama city. She noted that many had urged King to “wait awhile and change will come,” rather than organizing marches, protests, and other nonviolent demonstrations and campaigns. Undeterred, he penned the letter on the margins of a newspaper, as he was not allowed paper at first. Among the themes stressed in his letter is the four steps to a nonviolent campaign: collection of facts, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action.
“In 2018, we have to be a fact-finding people,” Thomas said.
Speaking up for one’s self is just as important, she said, and urged ceremony attendees to speak in front of the Town Council or Board of Supervisors if they are concerned about something.
“Don’t just get on Twitter or Facebook and dog Phyllis [Randall, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors] out,” she said.
Self-purification, she said, is time to examine oneself and one’s motives; while the final step, direct action, is when you decide “what are you going to do about it.”
“There’s something the world and the nation needs to know—you can’t oppress people all the time and never expect a response,” Thomas said. “I’m not calling for you to riot. I’m asking for you to be heard.”
The MLK ceremony followed on the heels of the annual march from the courthouse lawn to the Douglass Community Center, housed in the building that served as Loudoun’s first high school for black students until segregation ended in Loudoun in 1968.
To kick off the march, the Rev. Tracey Lyons, of Mount Zion United Methodist Church, invited members of the crowd gathered on the courthouse lawn to join hands while she led a prayer.
“Today is a great opportunity to walk on behalf of unity not hatred,” she said. “Bond us together today to remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to stand for the love, equality and justice he so proudly fought for and died for. Today we become your light shining in a world that still contains inequality. In a world that still contains hatred. In a world that still reflects injustice. Give us this day your peace, as we march through the streets of Leesburg.”
In addition to Thomas’ keynote speech, the afternoon assembly at Douglass also included performances and selections from local schools, places of worship, and community groups.