Julian Bond, a key architect of the early civil rights movement and a longtime activist, will be among the keynote speakers during Kansas City’s annual observance and celebration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
The weeklong series of events, which began Sunday, marks the 45th year the area has celebrated the legacy of the civil rights leader, who was assassinated April 4, 1968. In 1994, Congress designated the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday as a national day of service.
“We have done a program of some type every year since 1969,” said the Rev. Nelson L. Thompson, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City. “Sometimes it was one day and there were times it was two days, and sometimes it was as many as 10 days.”
“There have been a lot of speeches, drama, forums and a variety of activities to honor Dr. King,” Thompson said.
The local events include a youth leadership workshop, an artist tribute, scholarship prayer breakfast, the annual Black Achievers awards dinner and a mass community celebration.
Bond, a distinguished professor of government at American University in Washington, D.C., and former board chair for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is to speak during the community luncheon that begins at noon Tuesday at the Sheraton Crown Center hotel.
In 1960, Bond helped organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which comprised primarily college students and was known for holding lunch counter sit-ins, voter registration efforts and other demonstrations. SNCC also participated in the historic freedom rides 50 years ago that sought to support the enforcement of federal transportation integration laws.
“The movement is alive and well, but it never had enough supporters and it doesn’t have them now,” Bond said in a telephone interview. “It could always have more.”
Bond said the new civil rights agenda includes immigration reform, jobs, affordable health care, unemployment benefits and ending voter suppression among minorities and young people.
In that regard, Bond said, a number of states have passed legislation requiring voters to show a government-issued identification card, reducing advance voting, eliminating early registration for teens and doing away with same-day voter registration.
“Republican governors and legislators have made this one of their priorities to suppress the votes of racial minorities and young people, and that is threatening to our democracy,” he said.
Bond said the early civil rights victories continue to be threatened, and it’s critical for everyone to take up the cause for equality.
“We have this romantic idea that in the 1960s during the King era, that everybody was involved in the movement for civil rights and if you asked everybody, they will say, ‘Oh yeah, I was there, I marched with Martin,’ ” said Bond, who also served in the Georgia state legislature. “But the fact is that everybody didn’t then, and everybody isn’t now.”
This year’s local theme is “50 Years — the Legacy Continues,” which celebrates the events that led to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other notable achievements.
A number of communities and local groups on both sides of the state line will celebrate King’s message of nonviolence and racial equity in the coming weeks. However, the weeklong observance sponsored by the SCLC is the largest.
“The overall expansion of observances, remembrances and rededication to the ideals of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is all good,” said the Rev. Bob Hill, senior pastor of the Community Christian Church and co-chair of the Interfaith Service. “And it means that his true stature as a moral leader for our nation and for our world is being acknowledged but also being lived out.”
The SCLC festivities will conclude Jan. 20 with the annual mass celebration at Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, 2310 E. Linwood Blvd. The Rev. Vernon P. Howard Jr., senior pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Kansas City, will be the keynote speaker.