Franklin County distinguished itself Monday with its annual Martin Luther King Day celebration by having it, live and in-person.
With the rest of the Panhandle either going entirely virtual, or as in Tallahassee, postponing their event due to possible protests, Apalachicola staged a motorcade, complete with golf carts, bikes and those walking the route, and an outdoor service in which everyone stood, making the event one of the most physically active MLK Day celebrations in the 34 years in which it has been held in the county seat.
Organizer Dolores Croom said the local event’s founder, Apostle Shirley White, had suggested a scaled-down version of the celebration, which in recent years has meant a large gathering at the Fort Coombs Armory.
Croom was busy distributing American flags to participants, to wave along the route of the motorcade, which left the Holy Family Senior Center at 11 a.m., escorted by Police Chief Bobby Varnes and a fire truck, and full of several people walking.
Everyone trekked down MLK Blvd, to 12th Street and on to Battery Park, for the service. It was unusual to see anyone unmasked, and the customary physical closeness of the MLK Day participants was scarce.
From atop the small bandstand in the park, Bishop Robert Davis emceed the service, opening with a prayer that set in motion the theme of the day, that “the time is always right to do what is right.”
As it later turned out, Davis’ opening prayer turned out to be the only direct mention of the absence of non-violence that struck the Capitol two weeks ago.
“With gratitude, we come with the heart of thankfulness,” said Davis. “We pray for peace throughout this nation, in the name of Jesus, and in every community Father, even against all the threats, even against all the unrest.
“We pray for peace in Washington,” he said. “We pray the peace of God will rule and reign, in Washington, even against all the threats, against all the unrest.”
Jhaki Davis sang “America the Beautiful,” and Tami Ray-Hutchinson followed by reciting the James Weldon Johnson’s poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” which is customarily sung aloud as it forms the lyrics of the Negro National Anthem.
Wearing a cap that said “Blessed” on the brow, White, now 80, walked to the stage and offered brief remarks. Her aunt, centenarian Ella Speed, was honored with applause, attending from inside her car.
“You and your team have done such an excellent job,” White said. “Especially this year. Thank you for your labor; thank you for your team.”
White closed her words by quoting King, that “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that,” the words, like so many of the others, followed by applause from the small crowd, and horns honking.
'Stick to the right thing," mayor urges
Apalachicola Mayor Kevin Begos shared what turned out not to be a personal remembrance of attending King’s famous 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech when he was age 5.
“My mother brought me to see that speech and yet I don’t remember it,” he said. “So, you ask, how is that possible? One answer could be well, I was just 5 years old.
“Here’s the real story,” he said, going on to relate how he, his mom, Apalachicola resident Jane Richardson, and his late aunt, all took a train from New York City to see the speech.
They arrived at Union Station, not far from the Washington Mall where the march was held, and his mom went to call her husband, from a pay phone at the train station.
“My father threw a fit,” Begos said. “(He said) there’s going to be riots, you’re going to be hurt, it’s going to be a disaster. And he ordered them to go back home to New York.
“That was the era when wives listened to their husbands, when husbands ordered their wives around,” said the mayor. “So, I never heard the speech, we got all the way and we turned around and went back, because of fear.
“My mother had the right instincts in her heart, my aunt had the right instincts in her heart but because of fear they turned around,” Begos said. “My father wasn’t a racist man. But he was afraid.
“When it’s time to do the right thing, stick to the right thing,” he concluded. “Let’s not let fear turn us away from the right thing, and stand up and remember Dr. King’s great legacy.”
The celebration followed with the honoring of several essential worker groups that have played a crucial role in how the county has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. H’COLA President Elinor Mount-Simmons read off the citations.
Honored for their work during pandemic
First was the Franklin County Food Pantry, which went from serving about 300 households in a biweekly distribution from their headquarters in Apalachicola, to providing service to the entire county. Since March 2020, the pantry expanded home delivery to senior citizens all the way to Lanark Village, hosted monthly mobile pantries in Eastpoint and Carrabelle, and transported food for the pantry in Port St. Joe twice a month. The average number of households served by the Franklin County Food Pantry has tripled to over 900 households. Pantry Coordinator Lori Switzer accepted the award.
Next was the Conservation Corps of the Forgotten Coast, which stepped in to replace the many community volunteers, a high-risk population who were sidelined due to the pandemic. Members of the Corps, as well as the ED Corps High School, filled the gaps by unloading trucks, and delivering food to senior citizens, as well as serving as Community Emergency Response Team members.
Receiving the award for the Corps was Holden Foley, Corps’ director of restoration, and crew leaders Austin Hutto and Charles Petty. Young men, please come forward and if there are any of the corps members present, we ask that they stand. Everyone, please join the Advisory Board in saluting these essential workers by applauding or blowing your horns.
Richard Lewis, Franklin County Emergency Service Director, accepted the award on behalf of George E. Weems Memorial Hospital, including its EMS and clinic divisions, which provided treatment for COVID-19 patients, took part in community-wide antibody testing and vaccination efforts; and implemented a Community Paramedicine Program to bring telemedicine services to homes to mitigate the virus’ spread, and to help provide vaccines throughout the county.
CareerSource Gulf Coast was honored for expanding its program by offering job seeker services for those adversely affected due to the pandemic. The office extended operating hours to accommodate the needs of the community, with staff opening the office some days at 3 a.m. to begin scheduling appointments to aid those needing services. Because of the pandemic, CareerSource received additional funding to assist in job placement so citizens can continue providing for their families. Case Manager Valentina Webb accepted the award on behalf of CareerSource.
DT Simmons, the public information officer and operations manager for Franklin County’s health department, accepted the honor on behalf of the department’s 11-month long effort to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19. This has included mass distribution of COVID-19 update messages, drive-thru testing throughout Franklin County, distribution of prevention information to local food pantry lines, working with the TDC and the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce to initiate the Pledge2Protect program, and administering vaccinations to healthcare providers and senior citizens.
Coach Joseph first MLK Champion
The service debuted the MLK Champion Award with its posthumous presentation to Eddie Joseph, III, a longtime educator in Franklin County, who passed away in July from COVID-19.
Franklin County Schools Dean of Students Donna Barber, a longtime friend and colleague of Joseph’s, and Arts Teacher Melanie Humble, who wrote a poem about Joseph, stepped forward to accompany Mount-Simmons. Joseph’s daughter Adriane Joseph and family accepted the award, given to honor those who work to complete King’s legacy.
Known to many as “Coach,” and affectionately called “EJ,” Joseph worked more than 30 years in the school system, as a Franklin County educator. A graduate of Florida A&M University and Navy veteran, Joseph returned to his hometown Apalachicola and taught math at Apalachicola High School before becoming an administrator, as assistant and interim principal, and later dean at the Franklin County Schools in Eastpoint.
“He loved interacting with students and was a role model to all and a mentor to many,” read the award. “His connection with the faculty, staffs, and administrators he worked alongside was one to be emulated for he always went out of his way to do what needed to be done to support the Franklin County educational community.”
The celebration closed with a prayer from County Judge Gordon Shuler, who was the most prominent of elected officials who attended. They also included Superintendent Steve Lanier, Clerk of Courts Michele Maxwell, and Apalachicola City Commissioners Despina George and Anita Grove
Shuler began by recalling King’s “trials and the price he paid. We are grateful for the progress we made,” and went on to quote one of King’s prayers before continuing with his own.
“Father, your words tell us you are a god of love, that you are a god of justice and that you do not like oppression,” Shuler said. “Let us be faithful to your word; let us do the right thing.
“Lord, today we seek your healing,” he said. “You are Jehovah Rapha, the god who heals. Guide all in civil and religious authority in their leadership to heal us.
“We are created in your image, O God. We all have intrinsic dignity,” Shuler said. “With healing, we can again have unity, which we must have.
“We know God, you are also a god of hope,” he said. “Let us with one voice, speak your truth in power and love and in soundness of mind.”
This article originally appeared on The Apalachicola Times: Doing the right thing