Editorial: Fitting tribute for a trailblazer

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 30, 2008

“Paid taxes today. How I hate to pay big sums of money for taxes when we have no representation on the boards that make laws and taxes.”
ó Jan. 29, 1963, entry from the diary of Mayzonetta Grundy Lash
Mayzonetta Lash, the mother of Wiley I. Lash and a prominent citizen and businesswoman in her own right, died a few years after jotting down those words. She wasn’t alive in 1981 to see her son become Salisbury’s first black mayor. But there’s no doubt she would have taken profound satisfaction in that day ó and in the more recent day when the city paid tribute to Wiley Lash with a commemorative plaque. The marker unveiled Saturday notes Wiley Lash’s many contributions as a political activist and businessman who devoted himself to improving the lives and expanding the rights and representation of his fellow black citizens. These were principles Mayzonetta Lash and the Rev. Wiley Hezekiah Lash had long espoused themselves and imprinted on their children.
The Wiley Lash marker is part of the History and Art Trail project, which commemorates significant people and events in Salisbury’s history. The project was conceived long before the 2008 presidential race began shaping up, but it’s fitting that the plaque should be unveiled now, with Sen. Barack Obama on the verge of becoming the nation’s first African-American presidential nominee for a major political party. One can only wonder what Wiley Lash, his parents and some of their now-departed contemporaries would think at seeing this monumental leap along the trail they helped blaze in so many halting steps.
As a citizen activist, Lash knew that change often bubbles up from the streets, in both figurative and literal ways. Long before he became a councilman and mayor, he seized on the ballot as the essential tool for shattering the status quo. He registered to vote in Salisbury in 1929, when he was only 21, no small accomplishment given the registration hurdles black voters then faced. As a charter member of the Negro Civic League, he stressed voter registration. Before his own successful candidacy, he worked on behalf of other black candidates such as A.R. Kelsey, Dr. J.P. Johnson and O.K. Beatty. In addition to pounding the pavement, he wanted more of it to flow to Salisbury’s poor black neighborhoods. He advocated for more paved streets, expanded water and sewer service, more recreational opportunities for black children and, above all else, improved schools that weren’t divided along the color line. More than a humanitarian who saw the light, he also knew the value of street lamps in making neighborhoods safer.
If not for the quiet determination of Wiley I. Lash and others who labored beside him, change would have occurred more slowly on the boards and in the boardrooms of Salisbury ó and no doubt with much greater turmoil. If it’s true that we always stand on the hard-won achievements of those who came before us, Wiley Immanuel Lash holds a multitude of citizens on his shoulders.