By Janice K. Neal-Vincent
During New Hope Baptist Church’s first program for its month-long Back in the Day Black History series, guest speaker Attorney Charlene Stimley Priester reflected on voting rights, civil rights icons, and survival tools for today’s youth.
At the outset of the Feb. 4, program Priester said it was essential to harness self-respect, to cherish and to nourish the black race by remembering bridges like Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Wiley Evers, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and family members who have been proponents for the betterment of humankind. When she was a child, Priester had conversed with her father who was called “boy” by a young portal worker. She asked her audience: “How old does a man have to be before he stops being a boy?”
As she expounded on tough times, the attorney said, “If we tried to vote, we put our lives at risk. Medgar Evers and The Voting Rights Act made a difference. You had to go through the register to answer numerous nonsensical questions. The day after King was killed, I was a student at Lanier High School. I remember Principal Luther B. Buckley shutting down the school.”
The speaker charged parents to tell their children that “things back in the day were not good for black folks. We were making do with what we had. We were forced by circumstances to be courageous and to survive.” Priester then let on that youth need survival tools for present day encounters.
“First, you have to be courageous,” said Priester, referencing her mother during her childhood days. “When I wondered how this widow was going to make it with seven children, I knew she had to be courageous. Next, you have to use your imagination. “Her mother advised her and her siblings that, once you get something in your mind and you could use your imagination, nobody could take that from you,” she said.
The last survival tool Priester mentioned was Jesus. She told the black history seekers that Hamer, King and Evers all had Jesus. She then quoted Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV) -“For I know the plans I have for you, ‘declares the Lord,’ “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” She referenced the need to gain strength after having stumbled and fallen.
Priester attributed success of the black race to God’s grace in that, “He guided the race from the plantation to the White House. God’s grace told Fannie Lou Hamer that Mississippi black folks were tired. We had worn-out books but our families told us we had to read them anyway. We didn’t have minimum wage, but we worked,” she said.
The speaker turned her attention to the 2016 voting booth. “This will be one of the most important election years we shall see. We can’t just watch this stuff on television. We’ve got to get involved,” she said. Priester stated that the next U.S. president will appoint at least two and possibly four Supreme Court Justices. “I don’t mind academies, but I want my tax dollars to stay with public schools.” Following these statements, the audience thunderously applauded.
and Priester also explained the dropout rate between white males and black males. She reminded the audience that Mississippi ranks lowest in educational attainment. From there, she noted that crime is out of control. “We can’t fight crime with a person who drops out of school at the eighth grade.” Then moving to the audience, she raised the question: “What if the problem is us?” She called on the audience to learn from the past. “I see hope right here at New Hope Church,” she said.
In closing, Priester challenged listeners to expect more and demand more from elected public officials for accountability. “We’ve got to tell our children we love them and we respect them,” she said.
Eulyce Steers of Vicksburg attended the program. “I’m pleased to be here and Attorney Priester has high marks for all that she shared,” said Steers. Steven Harris, 17, of Memphis also enjoyed the event. “I wish I had a copy of what she said. I will long remember her talk and I’m going to straighten the kinks in my life,” Harris said.
Also in attendance were Judges Tommie Green, Bridgett Clayton, Jackson Police Chief Lee Vance and Jackson City Councilman Melvin Priester, the speaker’s son. The program included singing from New Hope’s youth choir and a viewing of a film documentary on the Voting Rights Act.
Flonzie Brown-Wright was the coordinator of the event.
“While we focus on the sacrifices of our ancestors, we are endeavoring to inspire, educate and challenge our present generation and prepare the future generation to preserve our collective history,” Brown-Wright said.
The remainder of February celebrations will continue on Feb. 11 with “Tribute to Living Legends” honoring Rep. Robert G. Clark Jr., Ellie Jewel Dahmer, Ineva Mae Pittman and Dr. Robert H. Smith Sr.; “Youth Heritage Night: Committed to Moving Forward” on Feb. 18; and “Treasuring the Life of Emmett Louis Till” on Feb. 25.
All events are free, open to the public and slated for 6 p.m. at New Hope Baptist Church, 5202 Watkins Drive in Jackson, pastored by the Rev. Dr. Jerry Young.