Martin Luther King Jr. is a man they know about, not from pages written in a history book, but by their parents and grandparents, those who have entered their senior years - those who were relegated to the back doors of restaurants, to the balconies in theaters and to the back of buses.
Marjorie Shaw of Refugio remembers the pain of segregation well.
“I went to the black school through the 11th grade,” she said. “A lot of things have opened up for us since then. God always has somebody to do his work. He sent us Martin Luther King Jr.”
Marjorie was the first black registered nurse in Refugio, one of the few professions open for Blacks, she said.
Living just blocks from Refugio High School, she thought it ridiculous for her daughter, Mayola, to walk past a school near her home to attend Barefield across town.
School officials expressed cynicism that she would not know how to change classes.
“She graduated third in her class and went on to graduate from the University of Texas with highest honors and they said she couldn’t change classes,” Marjorie said, shaking her head, still in disbelief after all these years.
Philip Lewis of Woodsboro was in the first grade when the school for blacks children was closed in Woodsboro. Today, his young daughter Heaven walks with him.
“This is a good day,” Lewis said. “I came to show respect to a man who did a lot for our country, not only for blacks but for Hispanics and whites, too.
Lewis, Betty Jo Avery and Lorraine Lopez were all from the WHS class of 1966, the first class to integrate in Woodsboro.
Lopez’s father was on the school board and called her aside that first morning of school and told her to be kind to everyone.
“I’ll never forget how scared Betty Jo was,” Lopez said. “I took her hand and asked her if she wanted to sit in my desk.”
The Rev. Eugene “Bull” Lewis, speaking from the pulpit at Union Baptist, said, “Martin Luther King was a preacher, a prophet and a pastor who loved justice... whole generations have been bon since his death, so we’ve got to keep repeating his legacy... all is not wrong but all is not right.”
As the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama prepared for his second inauguration while people congregated on Commerce Street, thought also turned to the president.
“If people wold give the president a chance, this country and the world would be a lot better off,” said Mildred Shaw of Refugio.
At 33, Martin Luther King was an activist for civil rights with President John F. Kennedy. At 34, he galvanized the nation with his I Have a Dream speech and at 35, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. At 39, he lay dead at the hands of an assassin’s bullet.
“We know teenagers and pre-teens who don’t know what he did for us,” said Frank Hosey.
In 1998, Hosey went to Memphis, Tenn. and marched the route of a freedom march where dogs and fire hoses were turned on the peaceful protesters.
“We take the simple things for granted but they had to fight for that,” Hosey said. “Don’t let that go by the wayside.”
Judge Rene Mascorro said Martin Luther King reminded people why it is important to serve others, to go to school and to exercise your right to vote.
“He sacrificed for the greater good,” Mascorro said. “You owe that debt.”
But there was a second reason, people gathered on Monday - to remember Willie O. Brown.
“Willie Brown was the same age as Martin Luther King,” said Gerald Morgan, of Refugio. “He had a good heart and he was color blind.”
Morgan and Brown worked together with Neighbors Helping Neighbors, in the Lions Club and numerous other volunteer projects.
“All the years I worked with him, he was the leader, I was the helper,” Morgan said.
The Rev. Claude Axel, guest preacher of Corpus Christi, said despite the strides, there is still work required in all of America.
“This is a rich country but too many in this nation attend schools that are substandard and that’s a source of shame,” Axel said. “The drop out rates are in the double-digits at some schools and that’s unacceptable. To let students commit economic suicide by dropping out of school is like taking a knife and cutting off every opportunity.”
The preacher told the crowd to keep marching until bigotry is gone, until all God’s people, gays and straights, liberals and conservatives, wealthy and poor come together as one.