STARKVILLE — Carole McReynolds Davis knew everybody in Starkville. She used to walk up to a visitor or a newcomer in Starkville Cafe, talk to the person for several minutes, and return to her table with a napkin that had the person’s name and contact information on it, her daughter Elizabeth Williams told a crowd of about 100 on Monday.
“She wanted to make sure that everybody was welcomed in this town,” she said.
The crowd gathered on Dr. Douglas L. Conner Drive Monday afternoon to march through downtown Starkville in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and to recognize the 2020 Unity Park honorees. Davis and Dorothy Bishop both dedicated much of their lives to bridging racial divides. Both died in 2014, when Bishop was 71 and Davis was 72.
The two women became the ninth and 10th honorees at Unity Park, as well as the third class of local honorees, for creating community unity and promoting racial equality. Plaques bearing their names will hang alongside other honorees at the park located just east of the Oktibbeha County Courthouse Annex.
Davis was a member of the first local race relations team in the 1990s and organized the annual MLK Day parade. She painted a portrait of a civil rights leader every year and presented the works to various churches. She also painted landscapes and buildings, but Williams’ personal favorites of her mother’s work were her portraits of everyday community members, she said.
“My mom had this way of not only painting the exterior of a person, but somehow also capturing the spirit of a person and putting that on canvas as well,” Williams said. “She did that by talking and listening and asking questions and engaging with whoever it was she was with, and that’s exactly what we have to do.”
The subjects of Davis’ paintings included King, local civil rights activist and physician Dr. Douglas L. Conner and even Bishop.
Bishop was the first female president of the Oktibbeha County NAACP. In addition to advocating for voter registration and racial justice, she made headlines in 2005 for her unique way of protesting Mississippi’s plan to remove the poverty-level aged and disabled category from its Medicaid program. She was on bed rest for diabetes and a thyroid condition, but she brought her bed to the Oktibbeha County Courthouse, the state Capitol in Jackson and even Washington D.C.
She advocated for the creation of Unity Park, founded in 2013, as a monument to the civil rights movement and approached the board of supervisors with the idea for it several years ago.
“She was a visionary that God gave a lot of vision to,” Bishop’s daughter, Daril Clinton, said at Monday’s ceremony. “She was chosen. She was a chosen vessel and she was willing to be used. It’s time for us to be used, to let God put the love of God in our hearts.”
‘Where all God’s children would stand as equals’
Unity Park is dedicated to recognizing individuals and events that advanced civil rights locally and nationally.
In 2018, the park began adding plaques annually to recognize local individuals who have contributed to civil rights in Oktibbeha County. Honorees include King and Conner, former Gov. William Winter, Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, Wilson Ashford Sr., Adelaide Jeanette Elliott and the Mississippi State University’s “Game of Change” with the University of Loyola-Chicago.
To be honored, a person must have lived in Oktibbeha County for at least part of his or her life, been deceased for at least five years, “advanced community unity” and “made a significant contribution to civil rights in Oktibbeha County,” according to the Unity Park website.
District 5 Supervisor Joe Williams said he had been hoping for years that Unity Park would add some local names.
“If we use local funds, we should have local representation,” Williams said.
Mayor Lynn Spruill said during her remarks Monday that she wants the march to grow, hopefully by 100 next year, and include as many people as possible.
“We want them to feel that they’re a part of the community in a way that we don’t necessarily do every day,” Spruill said. “We strive to, but making a highlight of it today in particular is one of the things that makes it stay so special.”
Former Starkville police chief R. Frank Nichols, who retired Dec. 31, was the ceremony’s keynote speaker. He said everyone has a responsibility to promote unity, especially in a time with increasingly “more division amongst Americans,” and reminded the crowd of Mark 3:25 in the Bible: “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”
Nichols also cited Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, in which he mentioned but did not define “the promised land.”
“That audience of striking sanitation workers and their supporters, those long-suffering women and men who erupted in cries and shouts already knew,” Nichols said. “The promised land is where you did not have to march for your dignity, where you didn’t have to sing for your freedom. It’s where you had no need for speeches to verify your humanity. The promised land was that sacred place where all God’s children would stand as equals.”