Locals join crowd at commemorative events in Washington

Among the thousands in Washington this weekend for the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a Dream” speech and march were four representatives from the Brookhaven-Lincoln County NAACP Branch.

Chasta Merchant of Brookhaven, adviser for the local NAACP Branch Youth Council, and assistant secretary of the adult branch, Gwen Smith, took Merchant’s son, Tylond Webb, 11, and Zia Townsend, 7, to the commemorative events.

Bernetta Character of the local NAACP was excited for the children to be making the trip to honor Dr. King’s legacy.

“I wanted them to be able to experience this because I walked with Dr. King … in Chicago,” said Character, who explained she actually walked with him twice – once at age 13 and again at age 17. She also was able to meet him at a Chicago church when she was 13.

“What I liked about Dr. King, he didn’t just tell you to do something, he did it himself, too,” she said.

Saturday’s program in Washington was a prelude to the actual 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s Aug. 28, 1963, march, which saw some 250,000 attend.

A half century later, Merchant said she has mixed feelings about the state of race relations today, especially in Brookhaven.

On the one hand, she remarked, “Dr. King made so many strides to help us with jobs, and letting people know about racial and social inequalities. Many of the places we go today as African-Americans, including schools, restaurants, businesses and even bathrooms, are largely the result of Dr. King’s efforts,” she said.

“In many ways we take this for granted,” Merchant added.

But, she continued, “There are a number of improvements that could be made. Racism still exists.”

“Here in Brookhaven, much of the town is divided along racial lines. There are a number of businesses that African-Americans continue to support, but they aren’t represented in the workforce,” Merchant continued.

“My wish is that we continue to make improvements. That we try to live up to Dr. King’s standard.”

The NAACP sponsored the trip, and the local group united with fellow NAACP members via a charter bus that traveled from McComb to Hattiesburg, Jackson and Meridian before continuing to Washington, D.C.