“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. said these words as a man who faced great challenge and controversy. Answering a call far greater than himself, the measure of his character can be seen on every water fountain, around every street corner and in every school room in America. What cannot be seen is perhaps more powerful than what can.
Gone are the signs that read, Colored Only, above water fountains. Waiting rooms no longer announce that a class of people were unworthy to view the art on its walls or find rest in its seats. White’s Only emblems are missing from restaurants, bathrooms and schools because a voice dared to cry in the wilderness for a multitude who couldn’t so that the land of the free could mean what it said. Dr. King knew a man’s God given worth had nothing to do with the color of his skin and everything to do with the size of his heart.
Like Reverend King, life-long Adairville resident and reverend, William Gossett Washington has seen his share of challenge and prejudice and has stood in spite of it. On April 24th, 1933, just four years after Reverend King was born, William Washington came into the world. Born and raised on a farm in Logan County, Washington entered a world that seems light years from the one we see now. Washington and his six siblings had little time to play as they pitched in with their mother to help their father, a sharecropper, tend to the farm they lived on. When asked what he remembered about life on the farm as a boy, without hesitation, he answered, “I couldn’t do anything too much because I had to work all the time."
"I worked hard.”
Washington and his family were no strangers to hard work and adversity. After a long hard week of back breaking labor, Sunday, the family’s day of rest, found them walking between five and six miles just to get to church. Godliness was important to his mother and father who served as a deacon in the church.
In his youth, segregation was a part of everyday life for Washington even in his hometown.
“I went to the Adairville Training School. It was for blacks only. Growing up back then, there were a lot of prejudices. At the time, Adairville was prejudice. In the square they had water fountains and blacks weren’t allowed to drink in but one and if you went to the wrong one, you’d be talked about, criticized and punished some kind of way.” Washington said.
“We had a restaurant in Adairville but we couldn’t eat in the restaurant part. We had to go back in the kitchen and they would only allow you to eat back in there,” he added. “We were taught that we were different and because it was punishable, we had to be able to accept it.”
In today’s society, thanks to Reverend King and those like him, segregation seeming acceptable is unfathomable but not to young Washington. “Back then you didn’t know any different. You’re not born to see differences, it’s something you’re taught in families that are prejudice. It’s something you take up yourself. We weren’t made that way,” Washington said.
During the 1950’s, Reverend Washington began noticing change. It was during that time, following high school, that Washington temporarily moved to Louisville. He followed his childhood sweetheart, Lillian, who moved to be closer to her family for a few years. In 1952 they married and remained so until her passing in 2017. Washington and his wife shared sixty-five beautiful years of marriage. Together they raised five children. Michael, Rodney, Wanda and two who sadly passed away: Steven and Wendy.
Early in his marriage, while still in Louisville, Washington began working for Coca-Cola and eventually transferred to the Springfield office when his family returned to Adairville. After working for Coca-Cola, Washington accepted a job he had not previously had the option of getting. The effects of Dr. King’s tireless work were being felt at home as local factory, the Hosiery Mill, began hiring blacks. “We couldn’t work at the Hosiery Mill before,” said Washington. He went on to work there for fourteen years.
Before his pastorate became full-time, Washington worked at Logan County High School. When they first became integrated as students from Adairville, Chandlers, Auburn and Lewisburg joined together, Washington recalled an interesting observation. “When they first joined together, people said it was going to be terrible but you know, those kids came in there and they all joined in together and just loved each other.”
Remembering his own childhood, “The kids had seen each other around town and we would play and get along together even though we were taught at home that we weren’t supposed to do that.”
He recalled an incident from his childhood growing up with some good white friends he had on the farm. “I remember the dad was really prejudice. Me and my friend would go to their house and Mrs. Grace allowed us to eat right there at the table. He didn’t like that at all.”
Thanks in part to the wisdom of Mrs. Grace to see what so many in her day could not, the friend Washington grew up with and sat at the meal table alongside of are still friends. “He’s also a local pastor and I’ll be preaching there in March,” said Washington. Though the world sought to separate them, two little boys proved that friendship knew no bounds and for them, it still doesn’t.
“By the 60’s, things had really changed,” Washington reflected. “When I began hearing Martin Luther King Jr., it made me feel really blessed. It was wonderful to be able to see that. I knew something was wrong but I loved everybody because my father and mother brought us up to do that - even our enemies.”
As Washington and his beloved wife, Lillian’s own children grew, greater changes became evident. Their children got an education at Adairville school - the school his family had never been allowed to attend because of the color of their skin. Washington and his family attended Mt. Hermon, where he served as a deacon for nearly six years. “While there, in 1971, I was called into the ministry and began to pastor at Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church right outside of Adairville in Robertson county.” After staying there for three years, Washington was called to Marriah Grove Church where he served as pastor for 34 years.
“Marriah Grove supported me. That was my praying grounds. That was my closet. That was my holy ground. I spent time there every day and I miss that part of it. When I left it felt like losing some good clothes you couldn’t wear anymore.”
After resigning from Marriah Grove Church after 34 years, Reverend Washington came back home to Mt. Hermon where he now serves as assistant pastor. Washington spoke affectionately of his time as Pastor. ”I was called by God. My heart was open for everyone to become a part of the congregation.”
Someone in Adairville asked him a question once that stuck with him after all these years.
“What do you expect to accomplish as a pastor here?” the man asked. “I told him I would like to have a mixed congregation. He said, “Well that sounds good but it will never happen.”
“But it did,” Washington said. “The doors were open for everyone. I was always open for anyone. I’m still open for that – really open for it.”
“I’ve preached at Adairville Baptist church several times and I didn’t ever think that would happen,” he said. He saw things happen that he never thought would as a young boy. Because of the love of God in his heart, Washington shared, he loved in spite of the hate he experienced. He sought to bring people together and not tear them apart.
“Being a godly person, God enables us to do it. I don’t have mixed feelings about it even now; even after I went through that. Love is still there. I don’t even think about what I went through. Love never fails. I don’t care what you face in life, love will never fail. You’ve got to have it,” he said.
When asked what one of his greatest moments had been as a pastor he replied, “When I was called to serve in our union district association. There were three of us being interviewed to moderate about 40 churches and I was elected. I served for four years as moderator. One of the best moments. I felt like I wasn’t qualified but God used me. It was all about him.”
Reverend Washington has been and continues to be a pillar of strength in this community and anyone who knows him will tell you of his sweet spirit, his kind heart and above all – the love of God he pours out onto all he meets. When thanking him for his service to the Lord and to the community he said “I’m glad I can serve any kind of way. Serving the Lord pays off every day. Not after a while, but every day.”
As the interview came to a close, and Reverend Washington sat in his chair surrounded by photos of treasured family and awards reflecting a lifetime of achievement, he reached for his bible and true to his nature read his favorite verse from Proverbs chapter six:
“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart. Lean not to thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him and he will direct thy paths.”
Clasping it in his hands, he said, “This book means everything to me. Everything. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t know him by this book here. It’s all we have. It’s all we need. Of course, we need friends but through this book we’re going to have a true friend.”
A true friend – that is what you have been to this community, Reverend Washington. Thank you for standing in spite of challenge and controversy as Dr. King did. Thank you for believing, as he did, that God’s love never fails. Our world and especially our town are better because of it – better because of you.