FORT MYERS, Fla. — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the man who drew crowds of listeners, leading the way down the Edmund Pettus Bridge, The March On Washington, and the streets of Birmingham, Alabama where Reginald Billups, a teenager lived during a time that is almost unimaginable to many, with a front-row seat to history inside the Bethel Baptist Church.
“Segregated schools, stores, lunch counters, everything, and so this was a movement to rip Birmingham of this. You know the church that I grew up in was the mecca of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. You know the Southern Christian Leadership Conference started there. My pastor Fred Shuttlesworth was the leader of the movement in Birmingham,” said Reginald Billups, the Fort Myers man who marched with Dr. King.
Billups not only attended Sunday service at Bethel but meetings that prepared him to help lead the way, shaping history for generations to come.
“We were taught nonviolence we had classes that you had to attend before, you weren't just - ok go in that store and sit-in a counter. You were told how to sit and what to say, how to order, what not to do. Pretty much every Saturday, I'd be marching or sitting at a lunch counter. We were all arrested serval times, but the last time we spent 9 days in jail and it wasn’t because it was such a big charge but it was just so many kids, and it took that long before you could get a hearing so you could go home,” said Billups.
One day inside of Bethel Baptist Church preparing for a march, he was approached by a man, many could only dream to meet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself.
“He walked and I was sitting on the edge of the pew and he said, 'Oh are you a leader of the group’, and I said I’m the assistant, the leader is on the other end and he just said, ‘You guys don’t know what history you're making, be proud of what you're about to do, and every time something happens that years from now people are going to be talking about this,” said Billups.
As a teenager Billups took what Dr. King told him with a great of salt at the time, realizing today, he played a part in the reshaping of a nation.
“You know this guy is real. He’s really leading the people and doing for us what we need to have done, and so he was my idol,” said Billups.
“That’s been 50 years ago, but to watch his leadership, was like no other man I had ever seen,” said Billups.
Living to see the change he helped build, a young teenager from Birmingham, says after looking at the year 2020 it's a shame how many steps have been taken back, after he and others put their best foot forward, for change.
Billups says there's one solution to the problem of racial and social injustice, it's a practice Billups and his wife Bernadette preach. The couple, opening Oxford School of Music the first black-owned free-standing private music school here in Fort Myers say, it's simple, get to know your neighbor, no matter gender, race, or color.
“The world needs to be diverse, and so that's why we taught, it doesn’t matter who it is, my staff the same thing. I just don't want one style of a teacher, what does that accomplish? It's not making the world unified, whoever came in the door became a part of our school, unheard of in 1987,” said Bernadette Billups, Co-owner of Oxford School of Music.
Bernadette Billups a native of Fort Myers, says during the time of civil rights and segregation, the City of Palms was a different world nothing like Birmingham but for blacks living in Dunbar, it was their world.
However, looking forward to the future, the Billups says the fight is not over, and despite their strides, there is more work to be done.
“We did not have simple things like going to the movies we couldn’t do that. We had our own movie to go to, going downtown there were certain times of day you could and could not shop, that is no longer there. It's good that we can realize now that life is about including a lot of things, not just one thing from one side to the other. That's the bottom line to this entire thing, we've got to know each other.,” said Billups.