Wilton Robinson: One man's journey to the mountain

Part three of a series - "Civil Rights: 50 years later


The Leader series continues this week:

by Laura Schofer


“Not there yet,” Wilton Robinson said, referring to the long civil rights struggle for African-Americans. “That’s why we have to keep moving forward, stay engaged and be committed to the belief that we can all sit at America’s bountiful table as one people.”

Wilton Robinson of Roosevelt and formerly of Freeport, pauses. “But in order to move forward, there are times you need to look back; learn from the past so we can make things better for the future. You have to make the journey.”

Over the last month or so, Mr. Robinson took that journey back to 1963, a year of momentous change for many Americans, but especially for African Americans. He was present at two events – the 50th anniversary march in Washington D.C. on August 24 to commemorate the August 28, 1963 event led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and then on September 15, he attended the 50th anniversary service to mark the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama. The past and the present had come together, “for a better future,” he said. “I remain hopeful. I believe in a higher power, one that works for the good of the people.”

March on Washington D.C.

On August 24, Mr. Robinson was in Washington, D.C., along with members of the 1199 organization. He, along with his mother Mary Robinson of Freeport and niece Mary, took a bus to Washington D.C, marching both in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to demand that our government not ignore the stalled economy, underemployment and a criminal justice system of mass incarceration of African American men that has been coined as the “new Jim Crow.”

In 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, overlooking the Reflecting Pool, before a throng of people, black and white, Dr. King gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, calling for freedom, color blindness and the pursuit of happiness.

In 2013, Wilton Robinson stood at the King Memorial and listened to Dr. King’s son, Martin Luther King III, speak about immigration reform, voting rights and the right of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” said Mr. Robinson. “He spoke about his father, about the original march and what challenges were ahead of us. It was very inspiring,” he said.

“The first time everyone marched for jobs. Now we had a starting point. We could celebrate our accomplishments but also look at what needs to be done,” said Mr. Robinson.

50th Anniversary Memorial Service at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church

Wilton Robinson sat in the upstairs gallery of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on Sunday, September 15, exactly 50 years after the tragic bombing of the church’s Sunday school that took the lives of four little girls – Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNairk, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson.

He had been invited to participate in this celebration by the church’s Pastor, Reverend Arthur Price Jr, who had made the journey north last year to speak at the Roosevelt Public Library. Mr. Robinson is the library’s President.

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is a monument to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The church served as the organizational and staging background for youth marches of the 1963 Birmingham Campaign. Ultimately, Birmingham was the site of one of the most dramatic segregation confrontations during the nonviolent movement.

Fifty years later, invited dignitaries sat at the front of the church to commemorate those times. There was Reverend Jessie Jackson, Andrew Young and Reverend Joseph Lowry. Bernice King, Dr, King’s sister, was present and Attorney General Eric Holder presented the Congressional Medal of Freedom to the families of the four children killed that terrible day.

“As I sat there, it took me back to when I was a child,” said Mr. Robinson. “I’d go to church and watch all the elders in the front of the church. The elders were recognized as people of stature in the community,” he said. “It was very moving to be with so many people who have been a force in the civil rights movement, especially for someone of my background, someone from the South.”

Mr. Robinson’s great grandfather died at 103 years of age on the very land in Mobile, Alabama where he was once a slave. “I thought about my great grandfather, about my grandparents,” said Mr. Robinson.

Mr. Robinson’s grandfather was a Baptist minister in Alabama during the civil rights movement. “He and my grandmother were involved with the NAACP and with voter registration. It was hard,” he said. “They had to meet in churches, the only place we could congregate. That’s why the church in Birmingham was bombed. They knew there was organizing going on there, including a voter registration drive.”

Now the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is a symbol of racial and cultural unity representing hope and understanding. The church was designated a National Historic landmark in 2006.

The future?

“As President of the library, I want to create excitement about these [historical] events and use them to help create a brighter future,” said Mr. Robinson. “We can prevail, we can succeed. We have to keep moving and one day we’ll reach the mountaintop.”