Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
Lt. Col. Joel Elston, Combined Arms Center G-6 officer in charge, shared his family’s experiences in southern Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement and their thoughts and feelings about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during his speech at the CAC and Fort Leavenworth Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance Jan. 12 in Eisenhower Hall’s DePuy Auditorium.
With a limited number of personnel allowed to gather in person because of COVID-19 restrictions, the event was streamed live on the CAC Facebook page.
“On this day, we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the life of a person that impacted countless lives of those past, present and yet to come,” Elston said.
Elston said King’s words are still remembered today, and he quoted five of King’s most famous speeches, including “I Have a Dream” given on Aug. 28, 1963, in Washington, D.C.; “Our God is Marching On” given on March 25, 1965, in Selma, Ala.; “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” given on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City; “The Other America” given on April 14, 1967, at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif.; and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” given on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.
“These five speeches … touched and continue to touch lives,” Elston said. “When world figures die or other significant events occur, you’re always reminded or asked, ‘Where were you when the Twin Towers went down (or during) the assassination of MLK?’”
Elston shared video footage of his in-laws, Nathaniel Jackson Sr. and Carolyn Williams Jackson, and his mother, Estelle George, filmed in May 2020, of them answering such questions. He also shared family photos and stories to illustrate his own family history in relation to the civil rights movement, particularly the attack on Freedom Riders on May 14, 1961, in Anniston, Ala., and the lasting impact of King.
Elston also shared a story of experiencing racism.
“There are those that believe the civil rights struggle ended a long time ago and racism is a farce,” Elston said. “But I, too, have multiple stories as a young man.”
Elston said he was 13, living in Lincoln, Ala., when he and his cousin went to Moseley Park to play tennis. While waiting for a court to become available, Elston said a police officer with the Lincoln Police Department hit a tennis ball in Elston’s direction while yelling racial slurs and profanities at him and eventually threatening to arrest them if they did not leave. Elston said he would not be provoked.
Thirty years later, Elston said several questions regarding that day still linger in his mind.
“How many people has this racist lunatic arrested while employed by the City of Lincoln? Where would I be today if temporary and provoked anger was allowed to momentarily reign triumphant over peace? Would I become another statistic of the school-to-prison pipeline (or) able to receive a commission as a military officer?” Elston asked. “This leads me to the social justice movement we are currently witnessing, which some have deemed the second civil rights movement.”
Elston said the surge of racial injustice and the growth of hate groups have been apparent over the last decade, leading to movements such as Black Lives Matter, which follow in the footsteps of King and other civil rights leaders.
“(King and other leaders) fought the fight for their generation; however, they left a blueprint. They showed follow-on generations that equal rights for all is attainable,” Elston said. “They passed the torch. The sports community and youth of the country took the mantle and placed it squarely on their shoulders.
“I always let people know that it is sometimes the small and insignificant things in life that can have the greatest impact,” he said. “A blade of grass has more power breaking through the dirt than a man’s foot on a shovel. It’s the thunder that crashes but a single bolt of lightning that strikes. It’s a single match that can brighten a dark room. It’s the rooster that crows, but the hen that lays the egg.”
With that in mind, Elston said he had a challenge for the audience.
“The civil rights movement started by Dr. King will never end. Dr. King … and the other pioneers are gone, but their legacy resides in each and every one of us,” Elston said. “We can each be a Dr. King in our own right. Will you be the blade of grass? Will you be the lightning? Will you be the match? Will you be the hen? What are you going to do about it?
“Everyone can do something to progress equality, but most choose to do nothing.
Remember the dream and help make it reality,” he said. “Join a civil rights group … and make your voice heard. I challenge each one of you to be the most seemingly insignificant blade of grass, lightning, match or hen.”
To view Elston’s full remarks, visit the CAC Facebook page.
The next observance, honoring Black History Month, is at 12:30 p.m. Feb. 19.