In three days, John Watson turns 94.
In those years, his fight for civil rights has been more about staying steady when the storms blow than about causing one.
One of the hardest times for him to stand tall in the face of racism and segregation was during the time he served on the all-black 16th Aviation Squadron and later at the Tuskegee Army Air Field as an airplane crew chief.
The native of Keystone, W.Va., enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942. During his more than three years of service, he was also exposed to racial slurs and segregation on base. And when conflict erupted between black servicemen and white residents near Tuskegee, the military disarmed its own black troops.
His daughter, Maria Gaddis, said her father is part of the advancement of civil rights and human dignity that is celebrated every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“He not only represents West Virginia black men and women but also black men and women of America who chose to fight for their country all the while knowing that their country was not willing to allow them equal rights when they returned,” Gaddis wrote in a testament to her father’s legacy.
Today (Jan. 21), Watson was honored with the West Virginia University Center for Black Culture and Research Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award in celebration of his contribution to the advancement of human rights.
Watson’s daughters, Gaddis and Yolanda Gill, received the award on his behalf. Gill, who works in the WVU Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, said her father was unable to attend the breakfast because he was in Washington, D.C., attending the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. He also attended Obama’s first inauguration after the President issued an invitation to Tuskegee airmen.
As Center for Black Culture and Research director Marjorie Fuller presented the award, she told Watson’s daughters, “Thank you for your father. He’s an incredible man.”
Watson was honored at WVU’s 23rd Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Breakfast along with Jenay Grant, a WVU sophomore from Ranson, W.Va., who is the recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Award.
In her award essay, she wrote that it is hard to measure one’s accomplishments in light of King’s. But she still strives to create the same kind of liberty and human family that he worked to create.
She learned as she began tutoring fellow students as a Peer Educator that education is not a level playing field.
“Many people don’t always have a strong academic background,” she said. “This can put them at a disadvantage at the university level because these students can be left behind. I strive to be there to help people like this.”
As Grant accepted her award, she said, “We can’t all lead a social movement, but we can all make a difference in someone’s life.”
Through tutoring, interning at the Charles Town City Hall and raising funds for Unite for Sight, which aids those with preventable blindness, Grant is working to achieve “integration among all people” in a spirit of love, she said.
The keynote speaker for the breakfast was Justice Larry Starcher, who served for more than a decade on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. He still serves the court as a senior status justice/judge, and is a lecturer at the WVU College of Law.
In his address, Starcher examined the social justice landscape in our country and asked, “What would Martin Luther King have to say?”
He called economic injustice the root of many social problems and pointed to the wage gap between the heads of American companies and the average factory worker. At one time CEOs were making 44 times that of the average worker. That has grown to 200 times or more what an average factory worker earns, he said.
Starcher, who at one time reduced the population of a West Virginia prison from 829 to 550 inmates, said that injustice in the prison system is something that must be changed. Currently West Virginia regional jails are so full that more than half of inmates sleep on the floor of a cell, he said. Across the country, the U.S. has a disproportionately high number of African-American inmates.
“What would Dr. King have to say about prison injustice today?” Starcher asked. “Answer that one for yourselves.”
He talked about the injustices in the health care system, voter suppression laws and the current debates on gun violence.
He said he was hopeful that the country could become a more just place as he looked around the room.
He offered words of hope and words of caution from King before leaving the lectern.
“He suggested that time is on our side, and I think it is, when he said ‘The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice,’” Starcher said. “But then he also said ‘Our lives begin to end the day that we become silent about things that matter,’ and I say we must remain vigilant.”
WVU is also celebrating the day (Jan. 21) with an inaugural ball and Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration at 7 p.m. in the Mountainlair Ballrooms. The event is free and open to the public.
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