ACCOMACK, Va. (Delmarva Now) -- Despite his battle with cancer, a longtime civil rights activist came to share his story with Nandua Middle School students Monday.
“I wanted to come to the school to give inspiration,” said Aaron Wheeler, a Chesapeake pastor and former chairman of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission who marched with Martin Luther King Jr.
“That march with Dr. King was the defining days of my life,” he said.
Wheeler has led movements to feed the poor and camped out on street corners to call attention to gang violence, but his story began with the civil rights movement in 1954, when he was just 7 years old.
He recalled challenging norms from an early age, such as when he drank from the white water fountain in Birmingham, Alabama.
“I was always a little bit different,” Wheeler said. “I always wanted to go to people that didn’t look like me and get in on a conversation, because I wanted to raise that level of understanding.”
As a student, he faced discrimination from his teachers.
“School was hard,” he said. “That’s why I excelled — because I wanted to prove that I was just as good as anybody else.”
“Never quit. Never let the world define who you are,” he said.
One of the pivotal moments in his life came in 1993, when Wheeler was living in his wife’s home state of Arkansas.
“At that time in Little Rock, the murder rate was higher than L.A., per capita,” said his wife, Barbara Wheeler. “The gangs had really taken over Little Rock.”
“We had heard reports of mothers putting their children to sleep in bathtubs to keep the bullets from piercing … the house,” she said. “It was really bad and, being the kind of person he is, he just prayed about it.
“That’s when God told him to go to the corner to bring attention to all of this and try to stop some of this gang violence,” she said.
Wheeler took to the corner that was once the site where the Little Rock Nine were denied entrance into Little Rock Central High School, defying the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling to integrate public schools.
He stayed there for a week, he said.
One of those nights, a gang member held a gun to Wheeler’s head, but when he pulled the trigger, the bullet did not release.
The next day, a boy about 13 years old came to the corner crying, Wheeler said. “He said, ‘I’m the boy who put the gun to the back of your head the other night and clicked it.’ ”
“He said, ‘If I didn’t shoot you, they were going to shoot my brother,’ ” Wheeler recalled.
The exchange sparked his Lighthouse Project, an Ohio-based nonprofit focused on empowering communities through programs that improve life skills and encourage cooperation across all people and between residents and law enforcement.
“Being a light in a dark place” is the goal, Wheeler said.
The street corner events become part of the 1994 HBO documentary “Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock” and “The 5th Chamber,” a gang-prevention play that was staged in Virginia Beach in 2010.
Wheeler went on to become vice president of the International Conference of Police Chaplains and advisor to three U.S. presidents.
Today, he pastors at Mountaintop Missionary Baptist Church, named for King’s 1968 “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.
Nandua Middle School English teacher Wendy Roache arranged his appearance at the school, where her eighth-grade students have been reading “The Rock in the River.”
“They had a lot of questions,” Roache said. “They really have no background knowledge besides what they read in history books.”
But a civil rights curriculum is helping them connect with families and communities to learn more about the movement.
“Change is hard, but we’ve got to be willing to change,” Roache said. “They are our future.”
She found Wheeler through fellow teacher Sue Matthews, whose husband Andrew Matthews is a pastor at Zion Baptist Church and knows him through the ministry, she said.
“You’re going to be the nation that will take your principal’s place someday, or your teachers’,” Wheeler said to the room of more than 100 students. “I’m looking for the leaders. I’m very proud of you all.”
He recently published a book titled “Battle on to Defeat of Cancer” and hopes to return to Nandua to check on the students next year.
“One young child — he said to me, ‘You gave me hope that I can be somebody one day,’ ” Wheeler said. “I said, ‘Son, you already are somebody.’
“That made my day,” he said. “I’m a very blessed man.”