MLK’s Dream and the Legacy of Vola Lawson

On this day, a day that our lawmakers have deemed be marked as a day of reverence for a great American, Martin Luther King Jr., I reflect on his legacy. But not his direct legacy, something which I will leave to the many who know it from their experience.  I instead reflect on the legacy of thought and inspiration he and his family left on others: others who went on to implement many of the changes and see through the work to begin to rectify many of the injustices that he and the movement he led brought to national attention. In particular, I reflect on one woman who to me embodied many of the same values I see associated with MLK. She too was not content with the status quo of the day or the daily injustices that others would pass off as just the way it was. She saw what America one day could be, and more directly she saw what Alexandria could be. She was a daughter of common circles with MLK. She too heralded from Atlanta.  There she had lived with her grandfather who represented many of the black universities and churches that incubated the Civil Rights change leaders on the School Board. She recalled stories of sitting on her front porch with her Grandfather as he met with community leaders, including Reverend Martin Luther King, MLK’s father. And how those discussions helped shape her opinions, I cannot say for sure. But I can share my reflection of her, one of the most powerful and influential women in my life, Vola Lawson.

Life is funny in how connections are made and memories revived. This past December, my company TLC (Tactical Land Care) had the opportunity to construct and improve the dog run and park at the Vola Lawson Animal Shelter, operated by the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria. Almost exactly 7 years after her passing, I reflected on each day of the project about what Vola would think today and what I could do to create an outdoor space that made her proud. In doing so, I was reminded of how incredible of a person this woman was and how fortunate I was to have been as close to her as I was. For me, as she was for the entire city, she was a thought leader with the all too unique ability to execute the goals she set. For me, as she was for the entire city, she was a strong maternal figure. For me, as she was for the entire city, she was someone you never wanted to let down.

Vola laid an indelible impact on my life and my family’s life. She was my Godmother for me and she was the best person for the job. She was gracious enough to accept it with all of the associated responsibilities just as she accepted the much larger task of serving as Alexandria’s City Manager in 1985 and continued in the post for 15 years.

Vola Lawson was my father’s best friend. They worked together in fighting to preserving the rich character of some of Alexandria’s affordable neighborhoods that were at times targeted for redevelopment. They joined forces in staving off a strong-armed attempt to build a football stadium in Potomac Yard, understanding that it would undercut the long-term economic diversity and community character. It was at a time when Alexandria was evolving from its segregationist past to one day be a beacon of progressive values and social equity.

Vola had come from Atlanta and had been well-established within the civil rights leadership that was fostered amongst leaders like Martin Luther King Jr’s father, affectionately known as “Daddy King”. I suspect her southerly politeness and grace reminded my father of his mother, and it was grace, coupled with a zeal for justice and accountability that seemed to contribute to her effectiveness in managing the City out of a quagmire of crises. But it was not just resolutions on single issues that she worked towards. She was committed to creating lasting reforms that would buttress the City in moving past its dark past.

When my father was elected Mayor and then ultimately Congressman, it was clear that Vola held a matriarchically role, an older sister of sorts for my father. She offered him guidance and mentorship.

As a child, I would go with my father when we would visit her home in Alexandria, where she lived with her boys, David, Peter, David Jr., and McArthur. There I would play under her watchful eye, exploring the bedrooms, admiring special items, decorations, and honorariums of Jack, her Jack Russell terrier.

As a child, I observed a strong woman. Extremely confident, full of grace. Always thoughtful, exuding an orb of majesty in the way she carried herself shared compassion, generosity, and genuine kindness with all people around her.

As I grew and was allowed to move from the carpeted upstairs and quilted living room to her yard and cul-de-sac, my memories of her shifted to the hours-long conversations she would have with my father and others around her dining room table on Sundays or other special holidays. I would either be sitting on the stairs, kneeling around the table, or perched near the top of one of her two 40+’ Magnolia trees. From one of these spots, I would watch people enter her home. Each one accompanied by a sharp sequence of barks from Jack, and a warm, “Whyy.. Hellooo” from Vola. It was the type of greeting that brought a smile.

From Vola, I observed a commitment to a community, the indelible belief that individual action was all it took to make a difference. It was this foundational understanding that is on display with the initiatives that still bear her name.

When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, one of the first things she did was create a coalition of Care Providers and clinics in order to create a non-profit fund to address the cost barriers for mammograms and the health outcome inequities between white and black and brown populations in Alexandria. For her, it was something that had to be done, because the alternative was unacceptable. Today that partnership between Radiologists and Alexandria’s Neighborhood Health still exists and is managed in league with the Alexandria Commission on Women.

I also saw the unwavering commitment and love of animals. Few mention personal stories of Vola without making mention of her Jack Russell terrier, but it should be known that she was a lover of all animals and all life for that matter. This love clearly inspired others as it did in our family to extend the same compassion she had for her community members to its furriest members.

I also knew indelibly that she was a leader, and I saw first-hand how effective she was not just by virtue of her mastery of the issues, but also a deep yearning to connect with people and their stories. She was an angel incarnate helping, supporting, appreciating who they were and what they had to say.

As I grew older, our activity of choice was to see movies together. Initially, it was at the Shirlington movie theatre, and then what was the new theatre at Potomac Yards. We would sit together, watch the story, and afterward discuss the film, treating each movie as a parable exploring lessons to be learned from the various plots, themes, and character development.

When I moved with my Mom to St. Mary’s Md, our visits became less frequent, but we would still have long phone conversations all the way up through when I was at Yale. Something she probably doesn’t get enough credit for is being an early tech adopter. The last gift I received from her passing was an iPad, which served as my college computer for the last two years of college.

As I look back now and see her impact on our city, I consider it equal parts a blessing, an inspiration, and an obligation. It’s a blessing that our City stood to be the recipient of the strength and leadership of Vola’s sound moral compass, competency, and execution to address much-needed issues that had stood for far too long. It’s a blessing that her intellectual and moral compass was no doubt influenced by the thoughtful leaders of civil rights that so too stirred Martin Luther King Jr to action. It’s a blessing that I and my family were as close as we were to her as she fought actualized those fundamental truths of equality under the law.

It’s an inspiration in that she was one person who in many cases was standing against years of obstinance and resistance to the reforms she felt in her core were essential to our community well-being. It’s an inspiration that she worked with her husband, David, to elect Ira Robinson as the first African-American Alexandria City council member since Reconstruction. It’s an inspiration that she was the first woman to hold the post of City Council, and in that role, she is heralded as one of the best Alexandria ever had.

Yet, with these blessings and inspirations, it’s also an obligation in that by seeing and understanding what one person can make a difference strengthening communities, resolving inequities, and protecting a community in which people can live, work, play, and grow with their families and friends. It’s this premise more than any others that ultimately fuel a community and must be protected by those who by virtue of education, exposure, or guidance, recognize it. Thank you, Vola, for being seminal in blessing, inspiring, and obliging my life and the lives of so many others. And, thank you Dr. Martin Luther King for your work and the inspiration, and impact you undoubtedly had on your fellow Georgian, Vola Lawson.

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