"I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”
The phrase, from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, and the civil rights leader’s “I have a dream” speech are two of the most well-known orations associated with an era rife with unrest and conflict.
King is remembered for his willingness to fight for racial equality in the United States despite the repercussions and setbacks he and his supporters faced. King, who was assassinated April 4, 1968, trekked across the nation to bring awareness to his plight, but before that, the famous leader established ties to Liberty County.
Dorchester Academy in Midway, which served as a school for freed slaves from 1872 until 1940, was a frequent stop for King and his followers. They often instructed “thousands of teachers in the basics of voter education and non-violent social change,” according to Dorchester’s website.
“We live in a dream land,” Liberty County Commissioner and playwright Donald Lovette said of the academy. “But I’m afraid we take it for granted. Few counties rival our county. We have this local treasure that folk are driving by. Take advantage of these things.”
With the celebration of what would have been King’s 82nd birthday on Monday, area residents will honor the civil rights leader’s memory and reflect on the many ways he sought positive change in a world scarred with racist upheaval.
“We were totally, totally segregated,” said Nan Flowers, the first white teacher employed by the old Liberty County High School in 1966. Before that, she taught at Bradwell Institute, where the student body was all white.
Flowers, 75, said she hadn’t been around black people before she switched jobs with Annie Givens, an African-American teacher who had been at LCHS before she took Flowers’ spot at Bradwell, becoming the schools’ first African-American teacher.
Flowers said she couldn’t understand why people made such a fuss about upholding segregation, but she figured her stint at Liberty County High School would last only a year. However, she said, she fell in love with teaching the students English and journalism and didn’t want to return to Bradwell, even when friends tried to persuade her.
“Everybody was wonderful to me,” she said of the African-American students and staff. “There was the curiosity element, the strangeness element. We quickly overcame that.”
On Monday, during a commemorative service at Bradwell Institute, the Liberty County Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Observance Association will give Trail Blazer Awards to Flowers and Givens’ daughter, Annette Givens, who will accept on her late mother’s behalf, for their roles in the county’s civil rights movement.
Givens taught English and journalism classes as well, her daughter said.
“I imagine she was apprehensive about going into this new situation. She was going to be the only black teacher on the high-school level. But I think she saw it as a challenge. This was a new opportunity to do something,” Givens said. “I suppose if she were alive and able to accept it herself, I think she would probably express her gratitude, certainly. I think she would express her gratitude to her co-workers and the principals and the students who she taught who were so kind to her and cooperative and supportive.”
Lovette and a few others will present the awards to recipients who stood up and spoke up for equality during a time when it wasn’t popular or favored to do so, the county commissioner said.
Soon after Flowers joined LCHS, another Caucasian teacher and a student followed her, joining in the integration process.
By 1972, the school system was ordered to desegregate.
“Young people are flexible and can overcome and go on,” Flowers said of the transition. Although the students and staff welcomed her with open arms back then, Flowers said she still struggles with the fact that many people have not yet grasped the concept of racial tolerance and acceptance today.
“The identification is just puzzling. Why do Americans still consider Dr. King a black American hero? My goodness, he was an American hero. He was non-violent. Shouldn’t he be our hero? For all of us?” she said. “Dr. King is our Mohandas Gandhi.”
Givens, who agrees with Flowers that racism is still a divisive issue, said tolerance is the key.
“It’s nice to know that things have progressed as well as they have. However, there are still problems. You just have to keep trying to cooperate with one another,” she said. “[This holiday…] it honors a great man who, in his own way, was very determined to see changes in a non-violent way, and I always looked to him. I always thought of him as a role model … in the midst of the prejudice that we did face, we used Dr. King’s example … when he was doing all that he did, he conducted himself in a Christian manner and a non-violent manner and he just kept going.”