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MLK: A dream remembered
Walk draws more than 300
More than 300 walkers near the end of their Sandy Level Stop the Violence walk Monday on Axton Road. The walk was held as a way for members of the community to come together to stop violence in their neighborhoods. For additional photos, see Page 6-A (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
A tradition gradually is being broken in Sandy Level, and residents are glad.
That tradition, residents and others with ties to the rural community in southern Henry County say, is violence — much of it due to illegal drugs — that left 27 people dead in recent decades. There sometimes have been as many as four murders there in a year, according to county Sheriff Lane Perry.
The drug and violence problem was so bad that the area gained a notorious reputation nationwide following a 1996 magazine article.
But things are getting better there as residents, with help from police, have taken a stand against crime through activities such as the annual “Stop the Violence” rally
and walk held Monday morning at St. John Baptist Church.
“Breaking Tradition” was the rally’s theme.
“We want to break with tradition” by ending not only the drug problem, but also racism, alcoholism and other problems, said former Bassett High School principal Garrett Dillard, who grew up in Sandy Level.
Several hundred people attended this year’s gathering, which featured the viewing of a recently produced documentary on Sandy Level titled “Two Sides of a Town.” The video features residents and police discussing crime there and its effects on residents, as well as efforts to combat it.
People in the video, made by Ervin Wilkerson, recalled drug deals happening in plain view with no effort made to hide them. Perry said dealers used to be so tough that sheriff’s deputies had to patrol in groups for their safety.
“I would sit (in the patrol car) ... with a shotgun in my lap,” Perry recalled. “That’s how bad it (crime) had gotten.”
In the documentary, Perry said he thinks Sandy Level got its drug problem because it is in a convenient place for traffickers, basically halfway between New York and Florida.
Also, according to Perry, the community is in an isolated area along narrow back roads, and its location near the Virginia-North Carolina line made it easy for criminals to cross the line to evade capture when pursued by police from either state.
Yet much of the drug-dealing and other crime has been eradicated from Sandy Level as residents and police fought back against bad elements.
Nobody has died violently in the community since December 2010, rally organizers announced.
People can sit on their front porches again or walk down Axton Road, the two-lane main road through the community, without fear of being killed — either as the intended victim of a criminal’s bullet or by being in the line of fire at the wrong time, according to residents in the documentary.
Residents and county officials have worked together on projects to upgrade homes and install water service and outdoor lights.
Five young people from the community have graduated from high school in recent years and now are in college, rally-goers learned.
“You don’t have to be part of the labor (turmoil) that they (criminals) have put on this community,” local minister Jonta Martin told youth at the rally.
Dillard said he and others are “proud of our hometown” for what it accomplished in recent years.
“There is no place, I think, that is greater than this community,” said Dillard, co-founder of the D-Truth Foundation, which, according to its website, strives to tell “people of all ages D-Truth about life.”
Yet crime is not completely gone, speakers noted.
“So don’t get too complacent,” St. John’s pastor, the Rev. Green Moore, told the crowd that filled his church’s sanctuary. “But, thank God, we’re not where we used to be.”
The rally coincided with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to advance the late civil rights leader’s message of racial equality and peace.
“The Bible teaches us that we’re one people ... God’s people,” so someone’s race should not matter, said the Rev. Jeremiah Lewis, pastor of Cross Road Baptist Church just down the road from St. John.
That comment from Lewis, who is white, received applause and cheers from the mostly black audience. Sandy Level is a largely black community.
Before the rally, many of the rally-goers marched along Axton Road to show their stance against crime. Some carried signs with anti-crime messages.
One of the marchers was Raven Brown of Eden, N.C., who attends a Sandy Level church. He said he wanted to participate to show young people “there is something to do” locally other than get involved in crime.
Rally participants of all ages signed pledges stating they are committed “to become a nonviolent and peaceful community,” such as by striving to show respect for themselves, others and the Sandy Level area.
At the event, Gordon Martin was presented a plaque recognizing his service to the community, such as by taking children swimming and making his home available for meetings of rally organizers.