Natchez living history makers tell story

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On a sweltering August day in 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. entered the podium to recite arguably his most dramatic oration, “I Have a Dream.” The speech held court with the nation challenging its perspective regarding racial injustices. Further, it served as a catalyst for all Americans to take a stand against racial and social inequality. This staunch position necessitated such ones would have to be a “first” in this endeavor.

At 11 a.m. Sunday, Christian Hope Baptist Church, 301 LaSalle St., will host its annual Black History Program, celebrating local African-Americans that became first in their pursuit of the fulfillment of this dream. They braved the antagonistic winds of racial discord to find their rightful place. As such, they will be honored for their tenacity during a time when bigotry, strife and racial prejudice served as the backdrop for this community and others across this great nation.

The program titled “African American Firsts; Sharing their Experiences, Trials, Tribulations, Triumphs and Successes During the Struggle for Progress in Natchez,” will serve as a platform for local participants to give riveting accounts of their involvement in the struggle.

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Honorees will include:

– Activist William Ware, the first civil rights activist to be jailed for his involvement,

– Mr. Walter J. Squalls Jr., the first black law enforcement officer for the city,

– Dr. J.R. Todd Jr., the first black medical doctor to establish a clinic, rendering medical services for the community,

– Dr. Bernadette Sherman, the first black chief of staff at Natchez Regional,

– Attorney George F. West, the first black man to serve on the Natchez-Adams School Board,

– Dr. Willie J. Hoskins, first black superintendent of education for the Natchez-Adams School District,

– Former Judge Mary Lee Toles, first female to serve as judge for Adams County Justice Court,

– First black woman elected Circuit Judge Lillie Blackmon-Sanders, to the sixth district, including Natchez-Adams County,

– Honorable Barney J. Schoby, first black elected to serve on the Adams County Board of Supervisors,

– Former Honorable Mayor Phillip C. West, first black man elected to the office of mayor since Reconstruction,

Serving as master of services to guide us through this exciting historical program will be Mr. David Albert Williams.

Some may be hearing these accounts for the first time. For others, it will be a bittersweet reminder of our painful yesterdays. Like Dr. King’s speech, it will challenge us to continue in the struggle by taking “the high plane of dignity.” Sunday will be an opportunity to celebrate the achievement these men and women made when they turned the dream of one into the reality for many.

It may be inconceivable for many of us to affect a national or community-wide movement for social justice or any other cause. We may be unable to solicit the support or experience divine intervention needed to galvanize a nation to embrace our issues. But we can emulate the examples of these leaders and start our own crusade to be a first.

We can be first to make peace, first to inspire others and first to succeed against incredible odds.

There are many instances of firsts that affect us on a daily basis. Examples include Paul Kenneth Johnson, first African-American fire chief for the Natchez Fire Department; Attorney Everett Sanders, first African-American to serve as city attorney for the City of Natchez; and Patricia Gibson, first African-American personnel director for the City of Natchez.

As a tribute to their examples, let us be vigilant in working together to see their dream realized. And let it serve to challenge each of us to be first in our endeavors.

Please join us for this special celebration. Dinner will be served following services.

John W. Scott Jr. is the pastor of Christian Hope Baptist Church in Natchez.