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Video Courtesy of Corporation for National and Community Service
Since 1986, the third Monday of January has been reserved to commemorate the birthday, life and legacy of one of the nation’s greatest leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. King—a Baptist preacher, scholar, and arguably the greatest leader of the Civil Rights Movement, selflessly fought for the equal rights of not only African Americans but all people.
In a time when Jim Crow and legal segregation were the law of the land, Dr. King became the face of a movement that sought to dismantle the institution of racial injustice. He advocated for persons in poverty, spoke against the Vietnam war, and worked to ensure that all Americans had equal rights and protections under the law. Nearly 50 years after Dr. King’s assassination, his legacy lives on.
Although MLK Day is a national holiday, the ways in which people choose to celebrate—or not—are endless. Many schools and organizations across the nation will have the day off and/or host an MLK Day program, while others may participate in a community service project or attend city-wide marches and rallies.
As our nation continues to fight issues of social injustice and racial tension, many question whether or not the ideals memorialized on MLK Day—a day of peace and tolerance—hold true throughout the year.
“We need to understand as a country that what [Dr. King] fought for still needs to be fought for today,” says Thomas McElroy, a long-time musician from Seattle Washington. “The path towards a country united under the principals he laid down for all of us still needs to be worked on.”
So, the question becomes, does MLK Day hold any true meaning in present-day society? Or, has it been reduced to a day off from work and school?
According to Erin Jones, “We have turned the day into an opportunity to rehearse the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
“I can honestly say that, personally, I have never celebrated the holiday and have taken it as a vacation day,” says Elisabeth Scott, a recent college graduate of Western Washington University. “It wasn’t until going to my current church, that I participated in an MLK service. Had I not sung [during service], I probably wouldn’t have attended.”
However, Sergeant First Class Derek White, a 16-year member of the armed forces still sees the value in MLK Day, and what it means to the future of our society.
“I think that MLK being observed most definitely holds weight for both older and the younger generations. One way to ensure that our past does not repeat itself is by honoring people like Dr. King and his legacy and what he fought for and stood for.”
As an educator, Erin Jones argues that celebrating MLK Day does not have the same significance for young people today.
“Students have no context to understand the gravity of what Dr. King and his peers accomplished,” the educator says. “That being said, I believe it is our responsibility to communicate the value of this holiday, which is why I agreed to speak at so many schools.”
As a professional mentor to students, Jessica Crenshaw believes in giving back to the community but admits that she does not celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day—for many different reasons.
“I do not celebrate MLK day as a holiday because I feel the significance of the day has been diminished,” Jessica says. “I feel it has been cheapened down for a “get-off-of-work-free card.”
For Jessica, an authentic celebration of MLK Day should include not only service to the community, rallies, and celebration events, but should serve as a day to reflect and organize for long-term change.
“I feel as if people should really take time to reflect over what Dr. King was trying to accomplish, and actually sit down and have planning meetings to plan out actions to make sure that his dream gets fulfilled,” she says. “Concerts and protests are good, but if you don’t continue to do this work after January 20th then you’re not doing it for a real reason.”
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c. 2014 Religion News Service
(RNS) The nation will mark the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday (Jan. 20) with speeches, prayers and volunteer service.
But for decades, retired United Methodist Bishop Woodie W. White has marked the holiday in a more personal way: He writes a “birthday letter” to the civil rights leader who was killed in 1968.
“It was a way to get kind of a year’s assessment on what the nation was accomplishing and not accomplishing in the area of race,” said White, a bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology for the last decade.
“I did it because, frankly, I needed to have perspective. I needed to not get discouraged, and I needed it to be affirming of progress in race which had taken place over the course of a year.”
White started the custom in 1976, when he chose to write a letter to King instead of giving a traditional speech to the Human Rights Commission in Howard County, Md. He continued writing on and off while he served as the first head of the United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Religion and Race. Since 1985, he’s written the letters annually, and they’re now published by United Methodist News Service.
White’s letter updates King on the latest strides in race relations while also acknowledging “a hard residue of racism that just won’t seem to die.” He admitted in his most recent letter to being discouraged by mass incarceration and the “lack of outrage” about legislation that has disenfranchised black voters.
“While we are yet flawed by those among us who hold to racial bigotry and intolerance, they no longer define us as a nation or a people!” White wrote in his 2014 edition.
White, 78, and King were not close friends, but they met in the 1960s when White was a Detroit minister and King made annual visits to the city to preach a sermon during Lent.
In 1963, White was among the more than 100,000 who took part in the Detroit “Walk to Freedom” march, where King gave a trial run of his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Two months later, White was in a larger crowd at the March on Washington.
“He began to speak and I said, ‘This sounds familiar,’’’ the bishop recalled. “It was a different context. It was almost like hearing it anew, or for the first time.”
Now, White communicates with King by letter, even though his missives will never be answered.
“The one thing every letter tries to say is that we are light-years ahead in the area of race than we were when Dr. King was alive,” said White. “If he could make an overall assessment, he would not believe how far we’ve come as a nation.”
White’s writing reflects lingering tensions in race relations, rejoicing at the scope of interracial relations and decrying the fatal shooting of unarmed Florida teen Trayvon Martin.
“We have more and more people of different races relating to each other, working in offices together, neighbors,” White said. “At the same time, we have schools that are more segregated, for instance, than they were in 1954.”
The letters also have personal touches, with references to his friend and civil rights activist Joseph Lowery and the deaths of Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela. He marveled at the two elections of President Obama, but criticized how the appointments of former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell were “not so appropriately recognized.”
Bettie W. Story edited White’s columns when he served as a bishop in Illinois. His “Dear Martin” letters were published in a church newspaper and gained a national audience after she recommended them to The United Methodist Reporter.
Illinois Methodists, both black and white, appreciated the annual dispatches, which encouraged them to pay tribute to King, she said.
“The bishop made it easier for them to do something within their own local churches,” recalled Story, 80. “They would reprint the letter in their church newsletters.”
White speaks from personal experience when he tells King how far race relations have come. As a Detroit pastor, he visited a white Methodist church in Jackson, Miss., in the 1960s and was arrested and fined $1,000 for “disturbing divine worship” and $1,000 for trespassing. Decades later, as a bishop, he was invited to speak and join in a potluck luncheon at that same church, which is now one of the most integrated in the city.
White often closes his letter with a variation on the words of the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome’’ as a final tribute to King in what has become an annual thank-you note to a man who many never got to thank before his 1968 assassination.
“It’s important for current generations to be aware that we have not overcome racism, we’ve not overcome prejudice,” White said. “It’s like sin: We’re always a sinner no matter how good you think you are, that we’re always striving to be better.”
Excerpts from Bishop White’s “Dear Martin” letters, published by United Methodist News Service:
“Perhaps that is the difficulty of navigating race in America as an identified racial minority — that is, the unpredictability of encountering racism in day-to-day living. One must always be prepared. It can manifest itself in so many different places and in so many different forms. In a classroom or office, at a department store counter, in a committee meeting or in a casual conversation, even at the Table of the Lord. One simply never knows.”
“Because my life has been lived in the world of religion and the church, I know this fundamental shift has taken place in the church as well. No longer do clergy justify racist practice or belief based on religion or theology. No sermons are preached today in their name. For the most part, the position of the church is not couched in racism. That would be considered un-Christian.”
“As we celebrate your birth date in 2007, if I were to be asked if race relations in America are better or still a problem, I would have to respond, ‘Yes!’”
Copyright 2014 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be reproduced without written permission.
By Larry Copeland
c. 2013 USA Today
ATLANTA (RNS) The King Center is urging communities around the world to participate in a bell-ringing ceremony next month to help commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
King Center officials say they have reached out to all 50 governors and to cities across the globe asking them to participate in the bell ringing at 3 p.m. ET on Aug. 28, or at 3 p.m. in their respective time zones.
“My father concluded his great speech with a call to ‘let freedom ring,’ and that is a challenge we will meet with a magnificent display of brotherhood and sisterhood in symbolic bell-ringing at places of worship, schools and other venues where bells are available from coast to coast and from continent to continent,” said Bernice King, King’s daughter and CEO of the King Center.
The King Center and the 50th Anniversary Coalition will host a seven-day celebration in the nation’s capital of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. King’s riveting speech was the keynote event of that march.
The bell ringing is planned as a way to allow those who can’t make the trip to Washington to participate in the celebration, according to the King Center.
On Aug. 28, 1963, King ended his speech with a call to “let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire…from the mighty mountains of New York…from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania…from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado…from the curvaceous slopes of California…from Stone Mountain of Georgia… from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee…and from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.”
Bernice King asked that participating communities come up with diverse commemorative programs that “bring people together across cultural and political lines to celebrate the common humanity in creative and uplifting ways in the spirit of the dream.”
Bell-ringing ceremonies are currently planned in communities such as Concord, N.H.; Allentown, Pa.; Lutry, Switzerland; and Tokyo, the center says.
The King Center is asking that communities wishing to participate submit a brief description of their bell-ringing event to [email protected]
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the civil rights movement, “Parting the Waters,” Taylor Branch wrote that King departed from his prepared text and that much of the speech’s greatness was extemporaneous.
“More than his words, the timbre of his voice projected him across the racial divide and planted him as a new founding father,” Branch wrote. “It was a fitting joke on the races that he achieved such statesmanship by setting aside his lofty text to let loose and jam, as he did regularly from two hundred podiums a year.”
(Larry Copeland writes for USA Today.)
Copyright 2013 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration that took place at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark Thursday night was not only a celebration of the civil rights leader, but a worship service led by two dynamic gospel music stars and a highly accomplished pastor. Three extraordinary women were also honored for following in King’s footsteps and changing their communities for the better.
Gospel Music Hall of Fame artist Richard Smallwood told UrbanFaith that Dr. King was “a prime example” of someone who devoted his life to the service and blessing of others.
Noting King’s statement that “everybody can be great… because anybody can serve,” Smallwood said, “It’s not about your name in lights …or how many houses you have, how many cars you have, but who are you helping, where you are making a difference? That part of him always gets my heart.”
Smallwood grew up with at least one intimate model of selflessness, in the person of his mother. She died in 2005, but encouraged her only child to study classical music and worked overtime so he could attend Howard University.
“She really was my biggest cheerleader. So it was very difficult when she transitioned,” said Smallwood, who didn’t write music for four years after she died.
In 2004, Smallwood completed a Master of Divinity degree at Howard out of a sense of calling from God.
“People said, ‘We know you’re going to preach.’ And I’m like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no! I don’t want to do that.’ It finally got to the point where I knew that that was a part of my calling. It was something I was going to have to do, because it was what I was born to do,” said Smallwood.
“I was nervous because I was like, ‘Okay, I’ve been in music all my life. I’m going to have to do papers, and a lot of reading, and stuff like that. It wasn’t easy, but it was a joy, because I had to do a lot of stuff in hotel rooms when I was traveling, in airports, writing papers and sending them back home to my professors. But it was a great experience,” the ordained Baptist minister explained.
Like King, who said he didn’t want to be remembered for his awards, but for his life of service, Smallwood wants to be remembered for the gifts he has bestowed on others.
“My prayer has always been that my music is what people will remember a long, long, long time after I’m gone … because I’ve seen how God can use gifts and really make a difference in people’s lives.”
Gospel artist Tye Tribbett grew up in Camden, New Jersey, where he said he led a “very sheltered” life as the son of strict Apostolic Pentecostal pastors. Even so, he couldn’t help but see the rougher side of life in his city.
“Some of the stereotypes that are on Camden, we have to take the blame. We caused a lot of [people] to have that perspective on us. But a lot of us now are also taking the initiative to turn that whole thing around,” said Tribbett.
“I think that’s what Martin Luther King’s birthday is all about: somebody being frustrated enough to stand up and make a change, and voice that we don’t have to stay this way. We don’t have to. I think that’s what Martin Luther King did against all odds. He stood up, not only felt it, not only thought it, but spoke it,” he added.
Six months ago, Tribbett and his wife Shante′ started The Word on the Street, a Bible study that meets at a public school in Camden. Three hundred people gather, Tribbett said, with a vision for turning the city around.
“We’re right in line with the dream that [King] had years ago,” said Tribbett.
“It’s not the normal Bible study,” he explained. “We’re taking a different approach, a fresh approach, because I believe right information creates right believing, and right believing creates right living. Or better, better information, better believing, better living.”
Tribbett knows something about the power of belief. After a particularly challenging time in his marriage that was brought on by his infidelity, he battled suicidal thoughts.
“I felt very guilty and ashamed, so when I started feeling and sensing voices, quote unquote, of suicide, it actually scared me. So I ran to the shelter of mentors,” said Tribbett.
He confessed his suicidal thoughts to them and said there were times when they didn’t leave him alone.
“A lot of young people today who are committing suicide because of bullying and all that kind of crazy stuff, I don’t think they have mentors,” said Tribbett. “I don’t think we have leadership. I don’t think we’re accountable to anybody, so we’re left to our own thoughts, and we’re left to whatever we feel. So I think it’s wise for young people, and older people, just to find somebody to be accountable to, to submit under somebody so they can bring you in when you’re way out there.”
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The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial that was unveiled last week came under fire first for appearing too Asian. Now poet and author Maya Angelou says a quote inscribed on the statue makes the humble pastor sound too arrogant.
“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” King told Ebeneezer Baptist Church two months before he died in 1968. “Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
“The sermon was so powerful that the designers of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington selected those lines to be inscribed on the memorial’s towering statue of the civil rights leader,” The Washington Post reported today, but a design change led to a paraphrase instead. The inscription on the side of the statue reads: I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.
“The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” said Angelou, who consulted on the project. “He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply.” Ever the wordsmith, Angelou added, ” The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”
Angelou isn’t the first writer to make this observation. Last week, Washington Post editor Rachel Manteuffel . “An ‘if’ clause is an extraordinarily bad thing to leave out of a quote. If I had to be a type of cheese, being Swiss is best,” she wrote. “I say, let’s undo the mistake. Let’s get the chisels back out. Let’s remember the words he chose and not let this be one more way we’ve failed King.”
“Not now,” wrote Charlotte Observer journalist Tim Funk at his Funk on Faith blog, but after Graham goes to his heavenly reward “a statue of this Charlotte-born evangelist — pastor to presidents — would be a popular addition to Our Nation’s Capital,” Funk said. But the U.S. Capital would be a more appropriate location than the National Mall, which he said should be “reserved for titans who profoundly changed America: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR and MLK.”
Funk chose the capital building because each state is allowed to donate likenesses of two of its native children and he thinks two former North Carolina governors have had their day under the dome. There’s precedent too. Hawaii, California, Utah, and Illinois have all donated statuary of religious figures, said Funk.