James Thompson, Memphis Alumni Association president, with Lt. Col. Sandra Walls (USAF retired), who keynoted the associations 25th Unity Brunch. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

by Thelma Balfour, Special to The New Tri-State Defender

MLK50 reflections, biblical references and public education were all themes in a keynote address by Lt. Col. Sandra Walls (USAF retired) Saturday at the Unity Brunch.

The themes reflected the times in which African Americans are faced with school closings, substandard facilities and lack of community support, Walls said during the Manassas Alumni Unity Brunch in its 25 year at the Holiday Inn-University of Memphis.

“Black schools are being closed down in black communities.… We’re on our way to extinction,” Walls said, referring to the disproportionate number of schools in the African-American community that are being closed.

Walls notes in order for schools in the black community to survive, the community has to change with the times.

“I hear people saying, we don’t want Manassas to become a magnet school. But sometimes we have to do unpopular things until there’s a better way.”

Walls, who is president and CEO of AVPOL, a logistics company, began her address with biblical references and her exposure to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by her parents and how his death has had a profound effect on her life.

“I didn’t want to go hear him (Dr. King) because I was afraid for him,” she said. “But on the last day, we (my mother and I) were in front of Mason Temple waiting for him to arrive, but instead a man came running up to us saying that Dr. King had been shot.”

Walls said after looking down at an old man who was shaking with tears in his eyes after hearing the news, she made a declaration.

“Dr. King became my mentor.”

She also said that her success was due in part to a Bible verse, Philippians 4:13.

“I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me,” she said.

During the brunch, Dr. Willie C. Williams, principal at Manassas, emphasized in his report card to the audience of about 900 members that Manassas had made some significant gains:

The graduation rate has increased by 11.8 percent from 64.5 percent during the 2015-16 school year to 76.3 in 2016-17 year.

There have been double- digit gains in the category of proficient in courses such as chemistry and biology. The three categories are: below basic, proficient and mastery.

Currently, the attendance is 94.3 percent, up from 87.5 percent in the 2016-17 school year, reducing chronic absenteeism.

“We believe in excellence without excuses…There is no magic bullet, just hard focused work and rigorous instruction,” he said.

The brunch began as a culmination of all high school students to meet at a central location to fellowship, connect and determine ways of supporting the high school. Eventually, the scholarship fund was the natural progression of helping the students to attend college. A total of 71 Manassas High School seniors collectively have received $178,250.

James Thompson, president of the alumni association, is expecting the current scholarship award to increase from $1,500 to $2,000 per student next year. “We have 15 students who are receiving $1,500 a year. But we are looking to increase the number of students and the amount of scholarship money to $2,000 per year, per student,” he said.

Thompson said if a student is not able to complete four years of college and may only complete one year, then the remaining money for the three years can be awarded to the next student who is eligible without delay.’

Walls is a member of the Class of 1968, who were honored during the brunch in celebration of their 50th Class Reunion. The Class of 1968 raised $23,176.00 for the scholarship fund, more than double the amount of the previous class

“We’ve got our marching orders for the 25th Anniversary of the Unity Brunch…Move forward with dedication and sacrifice to help our children,” Walls said. “Don’t allow other people to make decisions about our communities.”