Organizers: Martin Luther King Jr. Day events for everyone

An audience member raises her hands in praise Monday afternoon during the MLK Celebration 2005 at the Hughes Metroplex.
An audience member raises her hands in praise Monday afternoon during the MLK Celebration 2005 at the Hughes Metroplex. The Wichita Eagle

Four decades after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the nonviolent preacher's life and message is still relevant, say organizers of local observances.

In fact, the number of local MLK observances has grown from one or two major events in years past to more than 15 this year.

"You see a vast number of people getting involved," said Reuben Eckels, coordinator of Monday's MLK Worship Celebration at WSU's Hughes Metropolitan Complex, which in years past has attracted hundreds of people.

"In the past, it was largely an African-American community event, but we're seeing more people come out from all walks of life," Eckels said.

There is a conscious effort to reach out beyond African-Americans. Programs have become not only more ecumenical but more multiracial, said Mark McCormick, outgoing director of the Kansas African American Museum.

The museum its hosting its 31st annual MLK celebration at Century II's Mary Jane Teall Theater on Sunday night.

"One challenge I face at the museum involves convincing people of all races that we represent more than 'black history.' We connect cultures," McCormick said. "Do we trust King's message enough to live by it? The point we're wanting to make this year is that we all owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. King."

It was not only African-Americans, McCormick said, but Catholics, Jews and Irish-Americans who were persecuted through the rise of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s. The organization grew throughout the nation and in Kansas communities including Wichita, Arkansas City, Independence, Winfield and Fort Scott.

King, a Baptist minister from Atlanta, began working to end racial segregation and racial discrimination through civil disobedience and other non-violent means in the 1950s. His message caught the nation's attention after several acts of violence directed at southern African-Americans.

Rabbi Michael Davis of Congregation Emanu-El has a picture of his father, Rabbi Maurice Davis, who marched with King from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965. Davis' father was later appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to serve on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"Dr. King was an American hero who stood up and helped America get past slavery into civil rights," Davis said. "His legacy is that he stood up and said 'No, I am going to respond to your evil with goodness and maybe that can be more powerful than your evil'."

Celebrating King's legacy should touch all people's lives, said Sue Castile, executive director of Inter-Faith Ministries.

"When we come together as one community, we are one race reaching across faith, race and ethnicity — and that is what bonds us together," she said.

The MLK federal holiday was officially observed for the first time by all 50 states in 2000. But Wichitans have honored King through the years since his death on April 4, 1968.

"Part of the reason why we see such a large number of celebrations here is because there are a number of relevant aspects to his story and legacy," said Kevin Myles, president of the Kansas State Conference of NAACP Branches and the president of the Wichita Branch of the NAACP.

"We celebrate him not only as a historical figure and as a man of God but as a civil rights organization and how we can carry on that mission. His message remains relevant."

Saturday night, the NAACP is offering "It Takes a Village," an MLK celebration at the Orpheum Theatre featuring four speakers, ages 13 to 17. Each was asked to research King's legacy and develop an oration.

Using no lectern or notes, the students will speak on issues that include the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the need for youth to stay informed. They will talk about stereotypes, expectations and violence in the community and schools.

"Dr. King was out front and leading the push to make changes," Myles said. "He was a young man who surrounded himself with young people. It's not enough that we tell them that but that we equip them with tools so they can go out and advocate those issues on behalf of themselves. We didn't want them to recite what he said. We wanted them to honor his memory by doing what he did."

King's legacy will also be at the forefront of the MLK "Going to Make Changes" Community Day on Monday at Christian Faith Centre on South Broadway. The event features a parade in which participants will march down Broadway from Lincoln to Kellogg and back again.

"We wanted something for the kids to do," said Keith Williams, coordinator of the event. "We are stressing Martin Luther King's social activism — that this is what it was like for people before you to march for the things they believed in. Race is still a relevant issue. People are still discriminated against and judged by the color of their skin, not the content of their character."

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