By C.V. Moore
BEARDS FORK —
To more deeply appreciate the history-making civil rights work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., you have to also honor those who laid the foundation for his particular struggle, says Joseph Bundy.
On Monday, the Chautauqua scholar and dramatist from Bluefield brought his portrayal of physician, Civil War officer, and black abolitionist Martin Robinson Delany to the Southern Appalachian Labor School for its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration.
About 50 people from Beards Fork and surrounding communities came to hear the tale, share a meal, and listen to gospel music from The Brown Singers of Montgomery.
“When I celebrate the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, I do not just celebrate the life of King. I celebrate the lives of all the freedom fighters and civil rights workers ... who lived and fought with him and after him and before him,” he said. “People like Martin Delany, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and Sojourner Truth.”
In addition to telling Delany’s remarkable story from a first-person perspective, Bundy spoke about some of the parallels and contrasts between the lives of Delany and King.
“One of the things Dr. King did was defy unjust laws,” said Bundy, citing the Montgomery bus boycott, school segregation, and laws denying blacks accommodations in hotels and restaurants.
“He broke unjust laws to gain justice. Delany believed in the same thing.”
Born free in 1812 in Charles Town, Delany was descended from African royals. His mother, a seamstress, was free and his father was an enslaved master carpenter. In 1822, the family was forced to flee to Chambersburg, Pa., for breaking a Virginia law forbidding the education of blacks.
Delany studied medicine in Pittsburgh under the tutelage of a white doctor and became involved in the Underground Railroad. He started an anti-slavery newspaper called The Mystery and later co-edited The North Star with Frederick Douglass.
Oppressed by the Second Fugitive Slave Law and the Dred Scott decision, he moved to Canada, where he continued his involvement with the Underground Railroad, meeting and working with John Brown in the process. He would go on to recruit and lead the 104th U.S. Colored Troops in the Civil War.
Throughout his life, law breaking for advancement of justice was a theme.
Delany wasn’t permitted to attend school in Virginia, but a roving peddler broke a law that forbade teaching blacks to read, by teaching a young Delany his ABCs.
The literate Delany children would go to church and write phony notes for slave children saying their masters gave them permission to walk throughout the city. They taught other children in their community to read and write, too.
Both Delany and King were affected by laws of the day that protected racism, and worked to challenge them through direct action.
But Bundy notes that the men lived under different rules of law. King was born after the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which gave African-Americans freedom, citizenship, and the right to vote. Enforcement of the laws took generations, however.
“When Delany was a freedom fighter, the Supreme Court said no person of color had any right that a white had to respect, which meant a white person could do anything they wanted to do to you with no retribution,” said Bundy.
“King and others had laws on the books that gave them weapons to fight with and use.”
Bundy noted that West Virginia played a role in starting the civil rights movement. In 1906, members of the Niagara Movement held a conference in Harpers Ferry that led to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) three years later.
“You felt like you were really there,” says Paulette Brown of Bundy’s storytelling.
Brown is a vocalist for The Brown Singers. The group started out as a family singing troupe out of Montgomery and now includes others. They perform at churches and community events.
“I’d rather be here than any place else,” she says of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day event. “I felt like I was giving something to the event. Martin Luther King, he did a lot for all of us to be together, so this is giving back.”
Kathryn South, who has been coming to the SALS celebration for many years, was struck by the fact that Delany did so much that he was not “supposed” to do in order to advance his cause.
“It was very inspiring and gives you the can-do will that if you want something bad enough, you can do it,” she said.
“I think a lot of people in the labor movement have done that too during strikes. It’s a constant struggle when you’re dealing with oppression, and a lot of that history comes back to West Virginia. Civil rights was another struggle.”
For more information on Martin Delany, visit wvencyclopedia.org or encyclopediavirginia.org.
More information about Bundy can be found at http://josephbundy.tripod.com.
Monday’s event was sponsored by the West Virginia Humanities Council.
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