City leaders paid homage to a piece of local history Tuesday, with the unveiling of a commemorative plaque in historic City Hall.
The plaque, which adorns the wall just outside Council Chambers, denotes the Winston-Salem Board of Aldermen’s unanimous vote on Dec. 16, 1985 to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a city holiday. Mayor Allen Joines praised the action of the Aldermen (which is what City Council members were called up until 13 years ago), calling it a “courageous vote.”
“At that time, there were still states across the United States that had not made Martin Luther King Day an official holiday,” Joines noted.
The city observed its first King Day on Jan. 20, 1986 in accordance with the federal holiday, which was also recognized for the first time that year. Mayor Pro Tempore Vivian Burke said she conceived of the plaque as a means of educating citizens and visitors to the city about its storied history.
“I believe that we were one of the early cities to make this an official holiday, and I felt that we needed to have a plaque to hang up (denoting that fact),” commented Burke, who has served on the Council since 1977. “It needs to show somewhere in City Hall so when people tour City Hall, they will see that we respect the work that Dr. King did…Anything to reflect and show that diversity is important.”
Approving Burke’s motion to commission the plaque was among City Council member Jeff MacIntosh’s first actions on the Council.
“I think it’s great. I was here in Winston when it was going on and it’s kind of interesting to look back on it from our perspective now,” said MacIntosh, who was elected to the Northwest Ward seat in November. “…There were definitely elements of the community that were not pleased that they were going to do that, but I’m happy that they did.”
As the plaque states, former Alderman Larry Womble made the motion to observe the King holiday and was seconded by Robert Northington Jr., who represented the West Ward.
“I was so glad when the members of the Board of Aldermen went ahead and approved it,” recalled Womble, who represented the city’s Southeast Ward for 12 years before going on to represent the 71st District in the North Carolina House of Representatives. “…It took a lot of groundwork, and a lot of working behind the scenes and a lot of discussion.”
Womble, who was a student at Winston-Salem State University at the time of the Civil Rights Movement, was active in local efforts, including the sit-in movement to integrate area lunch counters. Although Greensboro launched the sit-ins, Winston-Salem was the first city statewide to actually achieve peaceful integration at its lunch counters, Womble noted.
“It was an exciting time and it was an interesting time,” he declared. “You had people more involved, you had people more concerned, you had people that were of a single purpose and mind and effort.”
Womble, who also led the charge to name Martin Luther King Jr. Drive as an Alderman, remembers meeting the civil rights icon during his visit to the Twin City in 1964 – an historic moment that is captured in an old newspaper article depicted on the plaque – and hearing him deliver his unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington.
“By his demeanor, by him just walking into a place, expressed confidence and to us expressed believability,” he said. “…(Being at the March on Washington) was unbelievable. It gave you a sense of pride, it gave you a sense of accomplishment, it gave you a sense of the can-do spirit that this can be done, and we were not afraid.”
Although he recalls receiving some phone calls from dissenters, Womble said the King Day holiday was adopted largely without incident.
Virginia Newell, who was also an Alderman at the time, said her colleagues on the board were receptive to the idea, living up to what she says is a long history of the city embracing progressive values.
“We did not get any controversy. I remember nobody talking at any length of time about Martin Luther King other than the good qualities that he had, and I was just impressed with that,” said Newell, who was also active in the Movement. “…I don’t think many of the City Council members (in other places) had a unanimous decision on Martin Luther King Day. I think there were some serious considerations about Martin Luther King, whether he was good for the people or not.”
Newell, a retired educator, said she hoped the plaque would spark a more active inspection of the city’s history.
“We need to do more meetings of that kind to let people know what has happened in the city,” she said in reference to the unveiling. “Plaques are fine, but what I would love is to have a discussion, a citywide discussion on what we can do to get together.”