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April 16, 2024

Black History Celebration speaker urges education, community input

KEYNOTE SPEAKER — Shown above, left to right, at the Black History Celebration held Saturday, Feb. 24, in Hiddenite: Helen Chestnut, Vice President of the Alexander County Chapter of NAACP; keynote speaker Brian Summers; Rev. Sterling Howard, President of the Alexander County Chapter of NAACP; Mrs. Donna Latham, Hiddenite Arts & Heritage Center Director; and Associate Minister Joy Jones of Third Creek Baptist Church.

By MICAH HENRY

The NAACP and Hiddenite Arts and Heritage Center hosted a Black History Celebration and Banquet on Saturday, February 24, at the Center. Mrs. Donna Latham, Center Director, served as mistress of ceremonies and Rev. Sterling Howard, President of the Alexander County Chapter of NAACP, served as master of ceremonies.

Guest speaker, Mr. Brian Summers, of Statesville, is now retired from 31 years of work in the Capitol for U.S. Senators from North Carolina. Summers grew up with dyslexia but was not diagnosed until he was in college and was tested. Mr. Summers spends four hours a day at Statesville High School, helping at-risk youth and urging them to further their education.

He moved from Statesville, NC, to New Jersey, in his youth. He spent summers in Mount Vernon, NY, and met Troy Dixon and members of Heavy D And The Boyz, eventually going on tour during summers with the musical group.

“No, I can’t sing. I cannot rap. In fact, I had charge of the wardrobe,” Summers related.

Work in Washington

Summers then recounted his efforts to initially be hired as a staff member. He was living in Washington, DC, but didn’t have a car then, so he left his home and kept visiting senators’ offices until he was hired.

“I was in my Senator’s office. He didn’t have anybody on staff that looks like me. I’m from North Carolina. One thing, I knew the rules of Capitol Hill. Every Congressional office, the inner office is considered public space. You can go to any member of Congress you want to, that first office is considered public space.” Summers would go and introduce himself. He kept trying. He worked at Kinko’s and at a Jamaican restaurant at night and repeated his visits to Capitol Hill.

“At Senator Helms’ office, he didn’t need anybody but I was persistent. I went every single day, with my degree under my arm. I put on a [sport] jacket and went every day at 9:15. I was determined something would happen in his office, but I had to get an opportunity to make that happen.”

“I learned to meet the office ladies, Helen and Margaret, his secretaries. I was always there, courteous, respectful, carried myself well. I had to do everything to gain entrance. I wanted to work in politics. I wanted to work in the Senate. I wanted to master Capitol Hill. So, in doing so, I was open to any party, Democrat or Republican. My thing was getting an opportunity.

“To gain an opportunity, don’t so much look about who you’re with, or not. Get the experience. I promise you, it will go a long way,” Summers said.

“I can tell you, as an Afro-American on Capitol Hill in the Republican Party, I faced racism. Absolutely. But I had to figure out how to outfox the fox. Never retaliate. Never get angry. Never be late. I had to go and sit in Union Station an hour and a half before our office opened, just so I wouldn’t miss anything. I did it on my own. I walked, didn’t have a car for years. But I was a staffer on Capitol Hill, trying to earn my own.

“I worked for two senators from North Carolina. When people came to visit the Senate from North Carolina, we made sure we rolled out the red carpet for them.”

While working in DC, a friend he met there, who worked in the Library of Congress, was a DJ on weekends. Smoky Robinson came to town and Summers was able to meet Robinson through the DJ friend. The DJ presented Robinson with a chronology of Motown music that Summers had written.

Robinson, in turn, gave the document to Motown Records founder Berry Gordy. This led to Summers writing notes on the John Legend remake of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” album.
Summers also helped with the historical timeline for the production of “The Temptations” NBC movie.

He is good friends with Martin Luther King, III, son of the late civil rights leader. When Summers worked a year at SELC in Atlanta, GA, King would introduce him as “This is Brian Summers, the Black Republican I hired,” and laughed.

Summers shared that when he worked in Senator Jesse Helms’ office, Helms asked him what he thought of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Summers replied that, being from Statesville, he was against NAFTA, feeling it would devastate the furniture and textile economy in this area. History proved him correct soon after.

Summers also worked as Chief of Staff for the NC Ninth District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Summers noted he is the fourth great-grandson of Hiddenite resident, the late Carter W. Lackey, who was born in 1847. He has many cousins in the Alexander County area.

He noted this year is the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law in July of that year by President Lyndon B. Johnson, a landmark bill which ensured voting and other rights for persons of color through Federal law. He urged all citizens to register and vote to exercise their right to choose elected leaders.

He encouraged local residents to get their children a library card and put books in their hands, to foster a love of reading and learning.

“Before 1964, we used to not be able to go to the library. We had to go to the side and get books out of a box,” he explained.

Summers worked on Republican presidential candidate campaigns in 1992 and 1996, though Bill Clinton was ultimately the winner. Summers again worked for a presidential candidate in 2008 with Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.

Summers did note that President Obama was a “good President, good husband, and a good father, and I know that personally.” Summers’ wife, Jocelyn, was a roommate with Michelle Obama at Harvard Law School.

He admitted that Mr. Obama likes to joke and “talk political junk. He was always taking jabs at me, ‘Summers, you can’t dance.’”

On a serious note, Summers urged everyone to continue to press for civil rights. He was part of a group who, beginning in 1994, pressed for a Statesville location or street to be named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Officials refused to rename any park or street that already had a name honoring someone else. The honor was finally granted in 2016 when the city’s largest park, then known as Lakewood Park, was named Martin Luther King, Jr. Park.

“There’s still work to be done, but together, we can all get it done,” Summers said. “Some of us were Democrats, some were Republicans, but we had a common goal.

“We are all in this thing together…We’ve only got one country, folks…I’m not suggesting a party, but go and vote.”

He also suggested persons of color be more active in local non-profit agencies and boards to broaden community input in these organizations.Summers serves on the YMCA board and eight other non-profit boards in the Statesville area.

“Our kids have to be able to see something different and be encouraged by it,” Summers related, referencing various educational and social opportunities.

“I promise you, books are the way out. Education is the way to make it happen,” he said. “Respect should have nothing to do with color or party…I love this country. I don’t always love everything about it, but we’ve got to keep fighting to make it better.”

Also during the event, Rev. Elliott Boston gave the opening prayer. The Youth Choir of Third Creek Baptist Church performed songs. Mrs. Priscilla Jenkins, Founder of The Bridge Community, was introduced. Minister Joy Jones, Associate Minister at Third Creek Baptist, introduced Summers to the podium.

Rev. Sterling Howard gave closing remarks, thanking Past Presidents of NAACP, B.F. Patterson and Everette Dula. He also thanked Taylorsville Mayor George Holleman and Alexander County Commissioner Larry Yoder for attending.

Vice President Helen Chestnut encouraged the audience to have their photo ID with them and go vote in the Primary Election.

YOUTH PERFORM — Members of the Third Creek Baptist Church Youth Choir performed at the Black History Celebration on February 24, 2024, at the Hiddenite Arts and Heritage Center. Pictured above, left to right: front row – LeBron Cowan, Yasmin McClain, Paris McClain, Isaiah Cowan, Cashton Ratchford, and Alona Cowan; second row – Janel Howell (advisor), Imani Byers, Sequoia Wilson, QuaShawn Ratchford, Kameron Parker, Hezekiah Tucker, and Elijah McClain.

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