The 29th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Program had a very different message delivered by both the main speaker and Alexandria's top elected official. It contained a plea, a warning and a chastisement.
In his welcoming remarks, Alexandria Mayor Kerry J. Donley said, "I was struck by the values and principles associated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and one in particular stands out for our community. That is hope.
"One of the ways I think of hope is I think of young people and their position in the Alexandria of tomorrow. We are at a crossroads in this community and we need to make space in our visions for the children of this community."
The mayor went on to plea with the religious leaders attending the event, seated directly in front of the podium, "to insure there is a place for our children." Donley chastised those in the Alexandria community "who don't want to make room for our children."
To make his point, Mayor Donley, in a thinly veiled reference to the Windmill Hill Park controversy, said "we shouldn't debate between a park or a dog park or whether there should or should not be an educational facility in the heart of Old Town."
But the evening's featured speaker, the Honorable Belle Wheelan, the newly named Virginia Secretary of Education, saw the responsibility for a lack of involvement by the younger generation as shared by them and their parents.
"We have a generation of children that are very much into the "me." And we have to take responsibility for that," she insisted. Noting that she has a 17-year-old son, she reminisced how things have changed during her lifetime.
Wheelan explained that when she was a young person the community took care of, and watched out for, each others children. "Now we lock our doors to young people because we fear them."
Wheelan stated that her appearance Tuesday night at the First Assembly of God Church, on W. Braddock Rd., to participate in this annual event, was her first since assuming her new post. She prefaced her remarks by bringing greetings from Virginia's new governor, Mark Warner, to the audience which filled nearly half the pews.
EDUCATION IS THE KEY
In referring to the changes which have taken place since King delivered his now famous, "I Have A Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, Wheelan said, "The struggle has changed but there is still a struggle. It is no longer racial. It is skill- based."
She emphasized the need for education and how education is critical in all walks of life no matter what the chosen profession. To make her point she said, "I sure want a nurse to know the difference between a milliliter and a liter. Especially if I'm the patient."
In making her point that people should reach out to the younger generation, Wheelan cited the case where a student was walking home one day with all his books and an adult said hello and asked if he needed help with his load. That chance encounter changed the student's life.
He went on to become the valedictorian of his class and gained a good friend in the helping stranger. His mission on his way home that day was to commit suicide, according to Wheelan. That was why he had cleaned out all his belonging from the school. "We never succeed alone, we succeed by the help of others," she said.
Wheelan made a plea to her audience to show leadership in shaping the future. She defined that leadership in two ways. "You take frustration and anger and turn it into success" and "If you get joy from helping others, with no thought of self, you are leadership material."
With tongue in cheek, she also noted that it behooves adults to build a good relationship with youth and help them as much as possible. "After all, they are the ones that will be choosing the nursing homes," she noted.
In concluding her remarks, Wheelan said that the word American "ends in I can." She urged Alexandria not to loose its sense of community and reassured the audience with a quote from her grandmother. "Nobody can walk on your back if you stand up straight."
The program also included musical presentations by the Men's Choir of the Metropolitan AME Church, remarks by Mrs. Alice P. Morgan, Chairperson, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Planning Committee, an invocation by the Reverend Carla Thompson, Pastor, Meade Memorial Episcopal Church, and a benediction by Dr. Tom Gulbronson, Pastor, First Assembly of God Church. Fred Hill served as Master of Ceremonies.
THE TIME IS NOW
In keeping with the message to emphasize the positive contributions and needs of youth, the printed program named Geomyra Lewis as the committee's honoree. A senior at West Potomac High School, she is a member of the National Honor Society, Project Destiny Mentor Program, and Who's Who.
She will graduate this year with an advanced diploma and hopes to attend Temple University in Philadelphia, and major in business. She has served as hostess for this program for the past seven years.
The Memorial Program is an annual event sponsored by the City of Alexandria, in cooperation with local religious, spiritual, civic, and social organizations. It is held at a different location each year to kick off the celebration of Martin Luther King Day.
In the preface to the evening's printed program, Morgan stated, In view of the difficulties we have faced since Sept. 11, 2001, there is no better time for each of us to recommit to peace, goodwill, equality and justice. This not only keeps Dr. King's dream alive, but makes it a reality. Our motto for 2002 is "The time is now."