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Don’t let others ‘sway you’ from what you believe

Geneva Craig, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., leads a crowd in song at the 2017 MLK Day celebration in Ashland. She spoke Thursday at the Black Youth Leadership Summit. Mail Tribune / File photo
Asante administrator who met MLK spoke Thursday at Black Youth Leadership Summit for Southern Oregon

Long before she was an administrator at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center, Geneva Craig was a girl living in her hometown of Selma, Alabama — and she was “angry at the white race.”

She saw so many inequities, including in public spaces such as bathrooms. The ones for whites were “squeaky clean,” while Blacks saw “rusty sinks” — and that was only if a place chose to provide bathrooms for them.

“Every time I turned around, I was slapped in the face with, ‘You are not good enough,’” Craig said in virtual remarks Thursday at the fourth annual Black Youth Leadership Summit for Southern Oregon.

“Have you ever felt so angry you think you're going to explode? Now you have an idea of how I felt,” said Craig, who was a clinical program coordinator at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center, before entering semi-retirement in 2019, when she became a registered nurse in the hospital’s employee health clinic.

To ease her anger, she would go outside for a run and then come home and read books.

“In those books, I could travel wherever I wanted to go and could imagine whomever I wanted to be,” Craig said.

Her mother would repeatedly tell her about the importance of education — but prayer helped her, too. It was those two things that led Craig to seek out Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he and members of his team came to Selma numerous times for community meetings.

“I listened to Dr. King and … I learned nonviolence is a powerful weapon,” Craig said.

In an interview after her speech, Craig emphasized that the civil rights movement wasn’t just something she participated in as a teenager in the 1960s — it was key to her growth and development in her life.

Craig told of a vivid personal interaction she had with King, who was assassinated in Memphis in 1968.

“He told me I needed to learn the word ‘patience,’” Craig said. “I was not happy. I was a teenager.”

Over time, she learned what King meant.

“Patience meant something you had to create and help cultivate what you want your environment to be,” Craig said.

Her patience was tested, as she was up against a powerful force — the Ku Klux Klan; its members would drive through her neighborhood often. At times, as she engaged in the civil rights movement, Craig ended up in jail, just as King did.

“I went to jail a lot, yeah. Every chance I got, I was going to jail,” she said, describing the force of a billy club beating or the shock of a cattle prod. “I knew every time I went to jail, I would accept death before I would accept the way other people of color had lived.”

The infamous Bloody Sunday occurred in Craig’s hometown in 1965. That was when Alabama state troopers clashed with Black civil rights activists who were advocating for their right to vote. The incident is remembered, in part, for the beating of the late John Lewis, who went on to be an influential member of Congress.

Craig participated with her younger brother, whom she tried to save from being beaten, since she was the older sibling. Craig was traumatized by what she saw — people engaged in Bloody Sunday gagging and vomiting from tear gas; or worse, screams of pain from those beaten with clubs.

“I knew then, for sure, it was freedom or death,” she told students participating in the summit.

So, what did Craig learn through her experiences during the 1960s? If you’re passionate about something, don’t let others “sway you” away from what you believe.

“My mother tried,” Craig told students. “I’d pat her on the back and say, ‘OK, momma.’ But the next opportunity, I was back in jail.”

All those times she spent fighting for African Americans’ freedoms is something she often reminds her son, who is now a Microsoft executive.

“(I tell him), ‘I set the bar; now you go over it — and he has,” Craig said in an interview.

The Black Youth Leadership Summit is sponsored by the Southern Oregon Black & African American Student Success team in collaboration with Southern Oregon University.

It’s an event meant to inspire and mentor youth of color, while also providing an educational opportunity for their white peers. Many Black youth were seen participating in the virtual meeting, but so were others, including students from Walker Elementary, Grants Pass High School and South Medford High School.

“I think it went exceptionally well,” said Marvin Woodard, SOU’s equity coordinator for racial justice. “I’m on a high from it right now.”

He went on to say the summit is a chance for Blacks in Southern Oregon, stretching as far as Klamath Falls, to come together “in solidarity.”

As far as his choice for Craig to be the keynote speaker, Woodard admitted he almost tapped her son for the opportunity.

“You gotta be able to go, ‘Oh, no, I did the wrong thing’ and correct course,” he said, referring to Craig, whom Woodard calls “Dr. G.”

“She is history for us,” Woodard added.

At the beginning of her remarks, Craig made sure she conveyed how much these local youth meant to her.

“I appreciate you. I am thankful for you. You inspire me and you give me joy,” she said.

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.