In the small sanctuary of Jerusalem Baptist Church, on the day that is not just beginning of a new year but the anniversary of legal freedom for blacks in the South, a soft-spoken John Sanders started many of the songs at the annual NAACP Jubilee Day observance.
Sanders, one of the older member of the church, sat in the third row at his home church. He would start with "Oh Lord," and the 30 or so people in attendance would follow. The words flowed among this mainly older crowd. Sanders sang as the Rock Hill chapter of the America's oldest civil rights organization remembered the freeing of slaves on Jan. 1, 1863.
And then, the songs finished, John Sanders stood, crying a little bit, and said a few words. A woman in the row behind him touched his shoulder for the strength to say what had to be said but was in no speech.
"I was not there, 148 years ago," said Sanders in a soft voice that carried such weight of message that it sounded like a foghorn nonetheless. "But I can imagine, what a celebration it was. When people knew that they were free."
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The emancipation came during the middle of the Civil War that was being fought over slavery, when so many hundreds of thousands of people died. Only when the war was over were those slaves truly freed, even if President Abraham Lincoln had decreed that Jan. 1, 1863 meant slavery was dead forever.
The annual event Saturday, brings new hope and new challenges, said Melvin Poole, the president of the Rock Hill NAACP chapter. The NAACP was founded just more than 100 years ago by whites and blacks seeking to ensure social, educational, political, and economic equality for all people. The goals of the NAACP today remain unchanged, Poole said. In the audience Saturday were blacks, whites, and Hispanics.
"Our fight is for freedom, equality and justice of all people." Poole told the audience. "We believe we can, and do, make a difference."
Jerusalem's pastor, the Rev. M.N. Baxter, urged people to seek equality for all during good times, and not just ask the NAACP for help during struggling times or when perceived wrongs need righting. Hope, Baxter said, is the key.
"Don't you give up, NAACP, and we won't give up on you," Baxter said.
The Rev. Johnnie Burris, one of the vice-presidents of the chapter, told the audience that the Jubilee Day ceremony, and the new year itself, offers a great opportunity for all people to "go out and help somebody else."
And that is what those songs were about, those old gospel songs started by Sanders and a few others from the Jerusalem choir. Songs sung by all in attendance. Songs about freedom, and hope, and helping people along the way.
The ceremony was about people celebrating their past, talking about the present, and vowing to act in the future.
"All of this is for any person, of any ethnic group, who believes in the rights of humans," said speaker Ann Morrison. "That is all of us, together."