A lesson in civil rights

When James Webb calmly spoke to a large phalanx of imposing Alabama state troopers in March 1965, the diminutive young man, just out of school, showed no fear as he told them the line of civil rights activists simply wanted to pray at the courthouse steps.

The deputy, L.C. Crockett, who towered over Webb, repeatedly told him and others to turn around because they were not going to be allowed at the courthouse.

Webb then asked Crockett to pray with him.

The deputy refused.

Today, nearly 48 years later, Webb, a pastor and a civil rights activist, travels around the world from his home near Norfolk, Va., preaching about the glory of God while sprinkling in stories about the civil rights movement, later working with Nelson Mandela, and helping to get Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday recognized as a national holiday.

Webb was the featured speaker on Sunday at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Celebration held at Union Baptist Church, 528 Lincoln Ave., Youngstown. The event was presented by the Martin Luther King Planning Committee.

Telling the biblical story of Joseph, whose 10 brothers hated him because he was his father’s favorite, faced numerous trials as he rose to become the King of Egypt’s right-hand man, Webb emphasized that God would always be there to support those who believe and follow his commandments.

Webb, a Baptist preacher like King, described becoming involved in civil rights because his parents were involved. He also received his earliest religious training at his home because his father was a pastor at an African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“In the 1950s and the 1960s, when blacks were traveling from Savannah, Georgia, to Alabama, there were few hotels and motels they could stop to rest, so they would stop at homes of pastors and others when they needed to rest or get meals,” Webb said. “We had all of the civil rights leaders of the time coming to our home. I heard the discussions of what was happening.”

Webb said he also worked in South Africa in the years shortly before Nelson Mandela was freed from prison. And later, he worked with President Mandela.

He helped persuade President Ronald Reagan’s administration make King’s birthday a national holiday.

“Rev. Jesse Jackson was right when he said blacks should have no permanent enemies and no permanent allies,” Webb said. “You work with whomever will work with you.”

Webb said he knew even when he was young that he would be involved in civil rights.

“Watching my parents, working with other civil rights leaders during the height of the civil rights period, taught me early on that I wanted had to be involved in doing something to improve the lives of people here and wherever there is a need,” Webb said.