Rotary names Lett Citizen of the Year

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Special to the times-journal

The Rev. Charles A. Lett, who has been one of Selma’s leading Baptist clergymen for 49 years, was named Rotary’s Citizen of the Year on Monday.

The award came as a surprise to Lett, 92, who had thought he was attending a lecture on Selma history since 1965.

The presentation was made by Jim Truax, chairman of Rotary’s Citizen of the Year Committee, with assistance from Alston Fitts, Melvia Holmes, Yvonne Hatcher and John Harris.

Fitts, who had invited Lett to attend his annual talk at Rotary, explained that the 92-year-old minister had helped to shape much of Selma history since his arrival in Selma back in 1957.

Fitts related an anecdote from J.L. Chestnut’s “Black in Selma,” in which Lett had risked his life to save a parishioner from a possible lynching by the Klan. He persuaded the authorities to release the man from jail at midnight and then transported him to safety in Montgomery “armed only with his faith.”

“This is typical of Reverend Lett, who is a man of faith who carries out his good works quietly, even behind the scenes. He helped integrate one organization after another in the ’70s and ’80s, serving as the first black officer of the Dallas County Christian Ministers’ Union and the first black chairman of the Selma City School Board.

“And that’s not even mentioning the many years he served on the board of Selma University and as president of the Southwest Baptist Association.”

Melvia Holmes, who represented the Selma City Schools, noted that Lett had approached the City School Board in 1970, when it was still all-white, and urged its members to integrate.

Himself named to the Board in 1978, he served for 14 years, being elected chairman four times. Yvonne Hatcher, a long-time parishioner, described the difference Lett had made as a pastor at both Green Street Baptist and Calvary Baptist.

Lett was visibly moved by the honor, and wiped away tears during the tribute by Mrs. Hatcher, whom he had baptized back in 1958.

“This is only the second time I’ve ever seen him cry,” marvelled Lett’s cousin John Harris, who revealed that Lett was about to retire after 49 years as president of the Southwest Baptist Association. “But he’s not retiring as a pastor – that’s something he means to do until he dies.”

Truax told Lett that $1,000 had been donated to the Rotary Foundation in his honor, and presented him with a medallion identifying him as a Paul Harris Fellow, someone who lived out the Rotary motto of “Service Above Self.”

Lett confessed that the award left him at a loss for words – “very unusual for a preacher, as you know!” He asserted that any good he had accomplished for the community was God’s doing and not his.

“This was a great program for our last meeting before the Fourth,” stated president Billy Atchison. “Having young Austin Anderson sing ‘God bless the USA’ before we presented Citizen of the Year award was the perfect touch. Serving your country, your community and your God – what could be more Rotarian than that?”

Previous Citizens of the Year have included Jamie Wallace, Kathryn Windham, Byrd Looper, Becky Cothran Nichols, Jerry Siegel, Dr. Sam Moseley, John Crear, Julius Talton and Seymour Cohn.