Doors to banks, federal & state departments and post offices are locked today in recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King‘s birthday — an official national holiday.
Floyd County schools closed in honor of the birthday.
For some Virginians — those who work in state and county jobs — it is the end of a four day weekend because Friday was the “official” observance of Lee-Jackson Day, a state holiday that honors Virginia civil-war generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Some find it ironic that Virginians enjoy a long weekend dedicated to men who either led others in a fight to, among other things, protect the right to own and use slaves and one who fought to bring equality to those of his race.
Racism has long been an ironic part of my life. Although my ancestry primarily dates back to the McTavish clan of Scotland, it is also a 25 percent mix of Seminole Indian and Black Irish.
My great-great grandmother on my father’s side was a full-blooded Seminole in Florida and Black Irish are a mixed-race among the Celts of Ireland and part of my family tree.
Racism hit home at an early age when my mother, widowed by the death of my father seven years earlier, married a divorced man originally from Floyd County and we joined his family then living in Prince Edward County, Virginia — the county that later would close the public schools rather than integrate and opened an all-white private school.
I never understood racism. Several of my friends in Farmville were Black kids my age. When I was unable to go to school and they could not, it angered my sensibilities at the young age of 10.
At age 11, with the help of a white friend whose father was in the Prince Edward County Chaper of the Ku Klux Klan, helped me sneak up on a Klan rally one night and take a photo of the meeting from an unobserved spot in the woods.
That photo, and an accompanying essay about being a young white kid living in a county of hate and intolerance, became the first photo and article I sold for publication and cemented my desire to before a journalist and photojournalist.
Thankfully, our family made the decision to leave Prince Edward County because of the racial turmoil, among other things, and we moved back to Floyd County.
As a young writer who also shot pictures for The Roanoke Times in the last half of the sixties, I covered racial tension in the city and the then-controversial “Total Action Against Poverty Program.” Racial unrest broke out often in Roanoke in those days, including a late night riot after the assassination of Dr. King.
I also covered meetings of the active Klan in Franklin County and threatened by more than one Klansman for taking pictures of those meetings.
Ironically, my next newspaper job was at The Telegraph in Alton, Illinois — birthplace of James Earl Ray, the man convicted of killing King. Racism still lived in Alton, a city along the Mississippi River and a place where, before the Civil War, a mob killed abolitionist newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy and threw his printing press into the river.
In yet another irony, the childhood home of James Earl Ray was occupied in the 1970s by an Afro-American family and later burned down — an arson by a white supremacist.
I wrote often about racism as both a reporter and columnist for the Telegraph. My writings brought more than one invitation to speak before Afro-American organization and before an AME church in Alton. It was an honor but also brought ridicule from some of my less-tolerant newspaper colleagues and slashed tires and other damage to my car.
Returning to Virginia in 1981 to live in Arlington County and work for the federal government in Washington showed racism still thrived in the Old Dominion. Arlington was, at the time, home to the American Nazi Party. Over the years, we saw racism thrive within Congress, driven sadly by Representatives and Senators from the Old Dominion. Racists like George Allen in the Senate and Virgil Goode in the House would bring shame onto Virginia.
While racism may not be as overt as it was in the 50s and sixties, it still exists. Those who embrace the recent racist comments by “Ducky Dynasty” honcho Phil Robertson drive home the point that intolerance remains ingrained in too many.
The Klan is still active in Franklin and Carroll County as well as other parts of Virginia.
Those who flaunt rabid right wing groups as the “voice of the people” embrace racism that is both prevalent and and central to an agenda that depends on distrust and hatred of those who do not share a lighter skin color or a style of life.
Yes, today is a national holiday dedicated to a man who fought racism and bigotry in America and the Americans who honor his memory on this day need to remember that those problems still exist and still need attention.