The 75-year-old retired U.S. Postal Service employee grew up in a “colored only” world of restricted public accommodations, second-class educational facilities and limited employment opportunities.
He thus appreciated King’s historic civil rights crusade that ultimately helped open doors for him, his children, his grandchildren and millions of other African-Americans across the country.
But as head of the local NAACP, Bartleson went beyond just a personal appreciation of King’s dream, his vision of ending the nightmare of segregation and what it meant to him and his family. He embraced a communitywide dedication to keeping the dream alive.
Bartleson and his organization worked year-round to help minorities in Danville and neighboring communities overcome the remaining but still insidious vestiges of Jim Crow America that were putting illegal obstacles in their way to experience Dr. King’s America, whether it be a house whose price suddenly was jacked up for an African-American buyer or a job whose qualifications suddenly became unmatchable, or an arrest that was based more on the color of the alleged offender than the evidence that led to his arrest.
But as much as he and other NAACP members accomplished on a daily basis largely behind the scenes, it was on a big stage where many in the community, especially white residents, got to know Bartleson. In mid-January every year for many years, he served as master of ceremonies of the NAACP’s annual observance of King’s birthday at First Baptist Church, Second and Walnut streets.
For nearly 30 years, I covered the annual King celebration for The Advocate-Messenger, and I did so from a folding chair in the back of the church.
Bartleson once suggested I move to a seat in a front row pew, but I told him that I preferred the back row seat so I could get a more panoramic view — and added that I wanted to pay respects and reparation of sorts to Rosa Parks by being a white man sitting in the back of the bus.
After the moving performances of black spirituals by various choirs and inspiring dramatic productions by young people, Bartleson began the celebration with an impassioned and often emotional plea to all in attendance not only to keep King’s dream alive in their hearts and souls but also to work to bring the dream to reality through their words and deeds. He paid special attention to the youth of the community, involving them in every program as well as encouraging their parents to bring them to the celebration.
Bartleson’s message was simple but inspirational: We’ve come a long way but there still is a long way to travel.
From now on, this community will be traveling without Bartleson, but we can keep him alive by keeping the dream to which he dedicated his leadership of the NAACP alive. We can be his disciples.
That there would be others to carry on his cause — that he was able to recruit disciples to continue his pursuit of the dream — was obvious in King’s last speech on April 3, 1968, just before he was assassinated:
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”