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Speaker recalls encounter with MLK

The words to the old spiritual "Oh Freedom" resounded throughout the North Medford High School auditorium Sunday afternoon at Medford's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration.

Nearly 250 people joined keynote speaker Geneva Craig in singing the chorus.

"Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom, over me, over me. And before I'd be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free."

The 12th annual celebration, hosted by the local Martin Luther King Jr. Task Force, commemorated the life and legacy of the civil rights leader, who would have celebrated his 85th birthday on Wednesday.

"I thank God for Dr. King, and I thank God for these sheets of music," said Craig, holding up a worn-out song sheet for the audience to see. "Because many years ago, these (songs) strengthened and sustained us."

Craig is a registered nurse, clinical program coordinator of the Inpatient Rehabilitation Center at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center and Oregon chairwoman of AARP's Diversity Advisory Council. DJ Gemineye, who emceed Sunday's event, introduced Craig as a "courageous and determined woman who met life's challenges head-on."

Born in Selma, Ala., Craig experienced firsthand the injustices of segregation.

As a teenager, she and her younger brother, who was 13 at the time, were part of the "Bloody Sunday" march on March 7, 1965, and had just crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge when state and local authorities attacked.

"People were being beaten, horses were trampling people, and it was chaos," Craig recalled. "My only thought was, 'I have to get this boy to safety.' I took him, and we went down the steep bank of the river, and we clung to the bank. It seemed impossible, but we did it and lots of other, too. We were choking and coughing. Tears were flowing, and we were retching from the tear gas."

On another occasion, Craig said she rallied other "angry" teenagers to enforce boycotts at business establishments that didn't support the civil rights cause. Groups of teens would wait outside the store, snatch bags from its black customers and run, dumping the bags along the way.

King, who spoke frequently at Selma's Brown Chapel, confronted some of the teens to see who was behind these demonstrations. When all eyes turned to Craig, he turned to her and asked, "Geneva, do you think you will be able to help me end this?"

"I said, 'Dr. King, I will find the people involved, and we will speak with them,' " Craig said.

Throughout the marches and meetings and in jail, Craig said she and others encouraged one another in song. Many of the teens were given song sheets and told to learn the songs, including "Ain't Nobody Going to Turn Me Around," "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" and "Oh Freedom."

"Singing uplifted us," she said. "Singing held us together. Singing helped dispel some of the fear."

Like King, Craig also had a dream. Ever since she was a little girl, she had wanted to become a nurse. Encouraged by King and her mother, Craig managed to get in the nursing program at Northwest Alabama State Junior College in Phil Campbell, Ala., a predominantly white institution.

"I faced a lot of roadblocks," she said. "One was an instructor who didn't support passing a black student, so I stayed in his class. I took it once. I took it twice."

In 1974, Craig graduated, and her 7-year-old daughter, who was dying from a brain stem tumor, was able to witness her mother's dream come true.

"I made a decision back then that I was willing to sacrifice my life to make this world a better place, and Dr. King provided that guidance," Craig said.

In addition to Craig's inspiring testimony, Sunday's event was marked by performances by the Rogue Valley Peace Choir, Ashland Danceworks, Nick Hall, Tom Smith, and Gene Burnett and T-Poe Varnado. Medford Mayor Gary Wheeler read a proclamation, and 18 students from VIBES Charter School presented King's "I Have A Dream" speech.

DJ Gemineye also presented this year's "I Have a Dream" award to UNETE, a volunteer-led movement of farm workers and immigrants in rural Southern Oregon, and to Kate Baxsted, former executive director for Disability Advocacy for Social and Independent Living.

Reach reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.

VIBES Charter School student Briaha Miranda, left, reacts after reading her portion of 'I Have A Dream' speech by Martin Luther King Jr. during a celebration Sunday at North Medford High School. 1/19/14 Denise Baratta - Denise Baratta