One day, the two friends were sun tanning when Foster’s brother ran out of the house and told him to get back inside, that black people don’t sunbathe. His mother later told him not to play with Timmy anymore.
“We didn’t know he was white, and I was black — we were just friends,” Foster said. “We didn’t know we weren’t supposed to be playing together.”
That moment was a defining one for Foster. He realized the divide between races isn’t something innate, but rather a lesson taught to children by their parents and society.
It was around that same time that another man, Martin Luther King Jr., was developing his own beliefs about race and sharing them with the nation. Although Foster was only 12 years old when Rev. King was assassinated, there is no downplaying the influence King had on Foster, a reverend himself at Harris Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church in Canton.
Forty-five years after King’s death, and with MLK Day around the corner, Foster says King’s lessons are just as important as ever. And although the country has changed a lot since Foster was told he couldn’t have a white friend, it’s nowhere close to perfect.
“We have come a mighty long way,” Foster said. “But, my brother, the work is not done.”
That is why Foster and a group of local organizers are making sure that King’s dream and holiday are not forgotten. Beginning Jan. 19 with a pride march in Canton and culminating Jan. 21 with a prayer breakfast at Lake Junaluska, Haywood County church members, activists and residents will gather to mark the anniversary of King’s birthday.
Foster will be giving the commemorative speech at a church in Canton on Jan. 20. For him, it is an honor, and a duty, to constantly remind people of the dreams of King and try to extinguish hate and racism with the same weapon King used: words.
Except, these days, Foster said racism is bit more elusive and not as overt as it once was, making it trickier to combat. His MLK Day sermon will focus on unity, while his message on racism will echo that of King’s as well.
“We need to put all that where it belongs: in the junkyard,” Foster said. “We are all human.”
Much like King’s struggles against racism, his own birthday faced an uphill battle to become a holiday nationally — and to become celebrated locally. First proposed as a federal holiday in Congress the year of King’s assassination, the holiday was not ratified until 15 years later and first celebrated in 1986.
But it still didn’t catch on everywhere.
Even though King was born in the neighboring state of Georgia — only hours away from Haywood County — celebration of King’s birthday was not readily accepted by some North Carolinians. In fact, two North Carolina senators had led the opposition to making King’s birthday a federal holiday.
But that didn’t deter members of black churches in Haywood County from organizing the local MLK Day tradition just a few years after the holiday became official. This year marks its 23rd anniversary.
However, Tammy McDowell, chairwoman of the event’s organizing committee, said at the time of its creation there was not much in the way of recognizing King. The small size of Haywood County’s African American population also made it difficult for the holiday to gain traction. But now the celebration has become a local mainstay.
And the local tradition will have an international visitor this year. Bishop Ivan Abrahams, general secretary of the World Methodist Council, will speak at the breakfast. Abrahams grew up during the era of apartheid in South Africa.
Furthermore, King’s message on racial justice reached far beyond the borders of the United States.
“He had a dream and that dream was to break down barriers of discrimination,” McDowell said. “Our goal is to remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his work.”
And keeping his memory alive is becoming more important than ever. McDowell is a living example of the last of a generation who crossed paths with King, even if only briefly. She was only a year old when he was killed.
Those with a living memory of King are fading and being replaced by those who must learn about him secondhand. Another reason McDowell can’t stress enough how important it is to keep the local tradition going.
“This one man brought this whole country together,” McDowell said. “That’s what I try to continue to do, keep his dream alive.”
MLK Day events in Haywood County
• Jan. 19 at 11 a.m. — Pride march beginning at Harris Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church and ending at the Canton Town Annex. Afterward a free movie “Skin” will be aired at the Colonial Theater at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.
• Jan. 20 at 3 p.m. — Commemorative service at Church of God of Prophecy in Canton with speaker Rev. Lamont Foster of Harris Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church
• Jan. 21 at 8 a.m. — Prayer breakfast at the Lambuth Inn Dining Room in Lake Junaluska, with speaker Bishop Ivan Abrahams, general secretary of the World Methodist Council. Breakfast tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for students and children. Children under 8 are free. Tickets are available at the Lake Junaluska Welcome Center. 828.215.0296.
More events around the region
Western Carolina University will be hosting a week of events from Jan. 21 to 26 celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. World-renowned writer/activist Nikki Giovanni, “Princess of Black Poetry,” will be the keynote speaker at 7 p.m. Jan. 23. Macon County will also be holding a Martin Luther King commemorative event.