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McLean Says 'Happy Birthday, Martin'

Community Celebrates at Alden Theatre in Inaugural Event

“Lift every voice and sing ‘til earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.”

— James Weldon Johnson

The McLean Community Center’s (MCC) first Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration was not just a sellout, it was a blowout as well, a celebration that brought some of McLean’s oldest families to the Alden Theater to celebrate King’s 75th birthday with song, dance and a rousing speech in the King style by Rose McElrath-Slade, a businesswoman from Great Falls, who preached a sermon in King’s oratorical style.

“There are people here today who I don’t think have ever been here before,” said MCC director Bill Bersie, who generated the idea for the celebration two years ago while brainstorming about the center’s programs with assistant director Peter Gray

Choirs from two of McLean’s oldest black churches, First Baptist of Chesterbrook and Shiloh Baptist, joined together to form a choir of 40 people. Susie I. Hall, 83, of First Baptist, was among them; she has sung in her church choir for 61 years.

“I wish you were here with me on stage,” said McElrath-Slade, “so you could see the beauty that I see [in the audience]; people of all colors and age groups.

“I feel that my heart is knit together with yours in unity and love.”

She recited the history of the black community in McLean, which began with a community of freed slaves who called their neighborhood “Lincolnville.” Now it is known as Chesterbrook.

McElrath-Slade recounted how King overcame a common human failing, the fear of inadequacy, but “went to work and embraced ‘the dream.’

“Opportunity’s door no longer reads ‘white’ or ‘colored,’” McElrath Slade said.

She described how Christopher Columbus Hall, an Irish-Latino immigrant, “dreamed of owning a dairy farm” in east McLean, where his descendants still live in the Cottonwood Road neighborhood.

“Who among us does not, at times, waddle in our inadequacy?” she asked rhetorically. “The answer’s the same for you as it was for Moses, Jonah, [Cyrus] Carter, and Martin Luther King Jr.,” she said:

“Why not you and why not me?

“Let not [King’s] work be minimized by our inaction,” she said. “Let not fear prevent us from living out our dreams.

“Let not this day be a day of shopping, a day of football, a day of play; let this day be a day of self-examination and reflection.”

Sheila Coates, president of Black Women United, spoke of the significance within the black community of the closing anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” written by James Weldon Johnson.

Known during the Civil Rights era as “the Negro national anthem,” it was sung at mass meetings and contained “cryptic messages” of hope, said Coates. “We never lost it within the African-American culture.”

MCC Governing Board chairman Caroline Pickens lived in Selma, Ala., in 1964-65, when her husband, Ed, was in pilot training at Craig Air Force Base, and she was present during the Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, which became a powerful historic benchmark for the era.

On Sunday she invited everyone present to run for positions on the MCC’s Governing Board this spring.

“We really welcome new faces and new blood,” she said. “It was an indelible experience,” she said.

Sabrina Anwah, a native of Birmingham, Ala., and the MCC’s public information officer, said the planning process for the first observance of King’s birthday was energized by “the dynamic trio: Armeta Basil, Sue Dorsey and Jackie Harney.

“There was nothing but enthusiasm and up, up, up, from the word ‘go,’” Anwah said. The enthusiasm spread in the community to infect local businesses, she said.

Fairfax Screen Printing donated 100 free T-shirts bearing the “Embracing the Dream” legend; PIP Printing donated services; and food was donated by McLean Family Restaurant, Corkie’s Grille, Monroe Grill, Rocco’s, Ralph Coates, Costco Wholesale and Heidelberg Pastry Shoppe. Golden Touch Florists donated flowers.

“They said, ‘We know McLean doesn’t have a huge African American community, but the words of Dr. King are for everybody, including us,’” Anwah said. “We should all be happy about how much we’ve changed. It’s a group thing.”

After the music, a reception filled all the MCC’s meeting rooms. People proudly pointed out their ancestors, pictured in photo exhibits showing the histories of the two churches, which were founded more than 130 years ago by the same man, Rev. Cyrus Carter.

Toni Carter Pearson, Carter’s great-granddaughter, carried on his message, passing out fliers about the book she will publish Feb. 1. Titled “Joyfully Enter the Temple,” it is a collection of “praise and meditation starters,” inspired by e-mail messages between Pearson and a close friend.

After Sunday’s premier event, “Everybody was happy,” Anwah said. “It speaks volumes.”