Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church presents awards, scholarships during 45th Martin Luther King Jr. celebration

Published 7:30 am Monday, January 17, 2022

SALISBURY — Quoting from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rowan-Salisbury Schools Superintendent Tony Watlington says intelligence plus character is the goal of true education.

Watlington was the keynote speaker of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church’s 45th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration and humanitarian awards ceremony, held virtually via Facebook on Sunday. Rev. Nilous Avery II was the hosting pastor. During the program, the church also honored several members of the community with its annual humanitarian service awards and granted a handful of students with scholarships and laptops.

Watlington began his keynote with another quote from King: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Watlington used that message to detail ways in which Rowan-Salisbury Schools is working to transform the community mindset to more effectively connect with students and parents, focus on high-yield teaching strategies and provide social and emotional learning opportunities.

Watlington said the district is launching a new strategic plan that will better target issues impacting students’ ability to achieve “a true education,” by reducing low-performing schools, improving student literacy rates and closing opportunity gaps. The ultimate goal is to increase the number of those enrolled in college, enlisted in the military or employed at high-paying jobs — preferably in Rowan County — upon graduation.

Watlington said such goals aim to “develop the whole child” rather than focusing on a single test score.

He added that RSS is working to establish its school and community task force to “drill down to the root causes of student misbehavior.” Additionally, a parent and community engagement office will allow for engagement in “new and different ways.”

Watlington recalled one of his favorite King quotes.

“Everybody can be great because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”

Watlington reminded viewers of King’s push against former President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress to pass and enact the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and, subsequently, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“We must not let this work and this sacrifice be in vain,” Watlington said. “We must encourage and model for our communities the importance of making their voices heard, and to take their rightful place in our American democracy. And we do this by voting … Together, we are raising our voices about the things that need to be changed and putting our heads and our hearts together to make sure the transformation that our students need and deserve actually happens.”

The Westside Community Foundation/Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church received a humanitarian service award for its impact on more than 1,500 students across the community.

The foundation was established more than 10 years ago and has supported the church in hosting summer and after-school programs for students, donating meals and hosting COVID-19 testing and vaccination events.

Sue Patton presented Renetta McNeely with a service award for her status as a “faithful servant, mother, grandmother and exemplary community member.” Patton said McNeely once noticed the children in her neighborhood who roamed around the streets because their parents worked late. Believing no child should be without food, love, security and encouragement, Patton said McNeely would purchase extra bread, snacks, lunch meat and hot meals for the children. In return, she asked they attend church with her on Sundays, which they all honor, Patton said.

McNeely is president of the gospel chorus at Files Chapel Baptist Church in Lexington, where she’s been a member for 30 years. McNeely is known for donating clothes and food and baking cakes at no charge.

“Her cakes are a delicious reminder of who she is: sweet, rich and full of great things,” Patton said.

When accepting the award, McNeely said she’s learned many children “just need somebody to talk to, somebody to go to,” and sometimes, “just a hug will put a smile on their face.”

“I say as long as I live, and if any one of them need me, they all have a special knock at the door,” she added.

Marilyn Alexander presented a service award to Krystal Pettaway Stukes, a dance teacher at Salisbury High School and owner of Triple Threat Dance and Charm. A native of Salisbury, Stukes has a master’s in education management, along with an extensive background in theater, dance, modeling, cheerleading and pageantry.

At her dance studio, Alexander said Stukes mentors and encourages many young people to achieve their goals. She’s also partnered with Salisbury High School to help put on two sold-out productions of the Nutcracker. Alexander said she’s someone “always willing to do and go, go, go.”

Kari Johnson Rogers honored Salisbury-Rowan NAACP President Gemale Black with a service award, noting his status as a “voice for the people” for meaningful impact. Elected to the Salisbury-Rowan chapter at 28, he was the youngest chapter president across the state. Rogers emphasized his two priorities of working to tackle gun-related crime and racial inequality issues in the school system.

Black leads the city’s Ceasefire initiative, a partnership with Salisbury Police to further engage with the community and use de-escalators and crime analysts to target hot spots. Rogers credited Black with always being “the first to arrive and last to leave” during any incident.

“His passion for change has inspired young people to get involved in the community,” Rogers said.

When accepting the award, Black said his passions mean nothing without the collective group effort of the community. He added that he feels honored to work with the young people of this community, who he called the “most brilliant people in Rowan County.”

Lastly, Patricia Cowan honored the Salisbury alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority with a service award, emphasizing the chapter’s role in educational development. The organization selects three schools annually to provide with various resources, such as school supplies, sanitizing items, gift cards, health care items and snacks. The organization also hosts a yearly high school educational summit to assist students with college selection, applications and courses. It also provides scholarships to students across Rowan and Stanly counties and at Livingstone College.

Avery also presented three Dr. Samuel R. and Dr. Eva H. Johnson Memorial scholarships. Recipients included 2021 Salisbury High School graduates Lauryn Alexander and Christian Morgan, who are both freshmen at North Carolina A&T State University studying nursing and criminal justice, respectively. Jesse C. Carson High School graduate Anduan “AJ” Merriman also received a scholarship, and is a freshman at Guilford College studying history and business administration.

The program also featured brief remarks from Salisbury Mayor Karen Alexander, China Grove Mayor Charles Seaford and Mayor Pro Tem Arthur Heggins, East Spencer Mayor Barbara Mallett, Catawba College President David Nelson, Livingstone College President Jimmy Jenkins, Hood Theological Seminary President Vergel L. Lattimore and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College President Carol Spalding.

Additionally, the program featured a performance from the Triple Threat Dance and Charm studio along with a playing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “We Shall Overcome.”

About Natalie Anderson

Natalie Anderson covers the city of Salisbury, politics and more for the Salisbury Post. She joined the staff in January 2020 after graduating from Louisiana State University, where she was editor of The Reveille newspaper. Email her at or call her at 704-797-4246.

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