In a speech delivered Monday in honor of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bennett College Interim President Dr. Phyllis Worthy Dawkins encouraged people to continue persevering despite injustices all around them.
“Even though Dr. King was assassinated, African-Americans like Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Dorothy Height, Mildred Loving, Jesse Jackson, Angela Davis, Andrew Young, Ameila Boynton, Ralph Abernathy, Jr., Mahalia Jackson and others who fought for racial justice and equality in the United States continuing persevering despite injustices all around them,” Dawkins said. “They could have given up after Dr. King’s death, but they didn’t.”
Dawkins delivered the keynote address before about 300 people Monday afternoon at First Baptist Church in Reidsville, the oldest African-American church in Reidsville city limits. She was invited to speak by The Ministerial Alliance of Reidsville and Vicinity, as part of their MLK celebration. Other events included a breakfast and unity march.
“When you hear the name Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it probably conjures images of his famous, ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” Dawkins said. “That powerful, emotional speech was delivered on Aug. 28, 1963, during the historic march on Washington. Yet one of Dr. King’s most famous quotes … was written 134 days earlier in the letter he penned on April 16, 1963, while sitting in a Birmingham, Alabama, jail.”
The quote to which Dawkins referred, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” was the theme of The Ministerial Alliance’s 2017 celebration.
“I feel that Interim President Dawkins’ address was very timely and relevant given the times in which we live,” said First Baptist Church Pastor Dr. Joseph A. Bryant. “The Ministerial Alliance of Reidsville and Vicinity and the Reidsville community was very fortunate to have Dr. Dawkins address us. She is the first college president to serve as the keynote speaker for our annual MLK celebration, and her message was well-received and fulfilled the audience’s interests.
“One of the greatest highlights of her speech was when she informed us of Dr. King’s visit to the Bennett College campus in 1958,” Bryant continued. “Even though there were larger campuses in Greensboro at that time, Bennett showed great leadership under then-President Dr. Willa B. Player in hosting Dr. King to speak.”
The ceremony began with the singing of “Lift E’vry Voice and Sing,” followed by the reading of 2nd Chronicles 7:14 by the Reverend Willie Sellars and the prayer of consecration by the Reverend Mae Coles-Davis. Dr. Clarence Johnson, newly elected Ministerial Alliance president, recognized special guests, including Reidsville Mayor Pro Tem Harry L. Brown., Councilman Donald Gorham, Councilman Reverend William Hairston and Councilwoman Sherri G. Walker, who read a special proclamation from the city.
Dawkins was introduced by Dr. Frankie Jones, president and CEO of Phoenix One, Inc. During her speech, peppered with applause and shouts of amen, she pulled no punches in mentioning unjust events in American history, including the government’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the more recent contaminated drinking water situation in Flint, Michigan.
There will always be injustice, Dawkins said, but people must persevere nonetheless.
“No one has to tell me that Bennett College graduate Belinda J. Foster has faced some injustices in her career,” Dawkins said. “But the good news is she didn’t let those injustices stop her.”
Foster earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Bennett in 1979 and a juris doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before making history in 1993 by becoming the first African-American woman in North Carolina to serve as a district attorney.
“Another woman of whom we are also proud and who I am certain has faced some injustice in her life is Senator Gladys A. Robinson,” Dawkins said. “Senator Robinson earned a bachelor degree in psychology, with a minor in biology, from Bennett in 1971. She also earned her master’s and Ph.D. degrees from North Carolina A&T State University. In 2010, she was elected to the North Carolina General Assembly and now serves as Deputy Minority Leader.”
Robinson is also chairwoman of Bennett’s Board of Trustees.
On Monday, Dawkins told young people that being armed with a solid education is a great way to fight injustice. “Do well in school, whether you’re in elementary school, middle school or high school,” she said. “I promise you education is the surest vehicle for upward mobility in the world, and I encourage you to get as much education as you can.”
Dawkins mentioned Bennett students and Reidsville residents Bianca Best and Sasha King in her speech. Best, a senior biology major who aspires to attend medical school and become a physician specializing in obstetrics and gynecology, attended the celebration with her mother, Porcia Best.
“Dr. Dawkins’ speech was inspiring,” Bianca Best said. “She explained that just like Dr. King, several Bennett Belles have had a positive impact in their respective communities despite injustices they’ve faced. I thought the program was remarkable, and I was proud to hear my college’s president deliver a speech in honor of one of the world’s greatest humanitarians. It was a really good way to spend time on the day we observe him.”
Musical selections for Monday’s service were provided by the Reidsville Citywide Choir, directed by Elder Bernard Florence. As the program was winding down, Dr. Jacey Bell announced the Reverend George Gunn as The Ministerial Alliance’s 2017 Martin Luther King, Jr. Award recipient, outgoing Ministerial Alliance President Dr. Ralph Watkins gave reflections and Bryant, on behalf of the Alliance, presented Dawkins with a check for Bennett College.