Over nearly five decades, the annual citywide celebration honoring the life and civil rights legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. has grown from small informal gatherings to mass venues that attracted hundreds.
And each year, King’s message of economic justice and racial equality has remained the constant theme.
This year will be no different.
Various groups, municipalities, churches and organizations have held a multitude of public observances and activities celebrating the life of the civil rights leader, who was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.
Those festivities kicked off Jan. 6 with an artist tribute that featured Marvin Sapp, a Grammy award-winning gospel vocalist. The observances conclude Thursday with the annual Black Achievers Reception and Awards Dinner that will be held at the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City has sponsored the majority of the Kansas City Martin Luther King Jr. Day events. Other local events are held in Liberty, Lee’s Summit, Raytown, Overland Park and Kansas City, Kan.
Other King observances include a youth leadership workshop, a prayer breakfast, scholarship dinners, lectures, a community forum, interfaith worship services and an array of community service activities.
But the largest celebration is sponsored by the SCLC.
“This is our 48th MLK celebration, and each year people look forward to the events,” said Arlana Coleman, who has been involved in planning the SCLC events for the last 20 years. “They do this because we bring national speakers and entertainers that they want to see and hear. We also try to have programs that will appeal to different audiences, so there is something for everyone.”
The SCLC will hold its annual Mass celebration at 6 p.m. Monday at Friendship Baptist Church, 3530 Chelsea Drive in Kansas City. U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland will be the keynote speaker.
During that event, the SCLC will present the Rev. Wallace S. Hartsfield Sr. with the Rev. Nelson “Fuzzy” Thompson Leadership Award. Hartsfield is the retired senior pastor of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church and is being recognized for his decades of community service and contributions to the numerous civil rights gains in Kansas City.
“Also, we make sure there is diversity in our programs,” Coleman said. “Civil and human rights affect everyone, so we try to bring a conversation that everyone can relate to. And we add variety to the venues for different events moving around the city.”
The first King observance was held in Kansas City in 1969 and has grown ever since. In 1994, Congress designated the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday as a national day of service.
The theme of this year’s SCLC celebration, Remembering, Reflecting, Renewing Justice & Equality Now, represents a sense of concern and fear that incoming U.S. president Donald J. Trump will seek to reverse many political, social and economic gains realized during the presidency of Barack Obama.
“The most recent presidential election revealed a kind of clandestine and an under-the-surface kind of referent to America’s past regarding misogynist language and behavior regarding blatant racist statements,” said the Rev. Vernon P. Howard Jr., president of the SCLC in Kansas City.
The SCLC celebration also will serve as the campaign kickoff in support of a one-eighth-cent citywide sales tax to pay for East Side development projects.
The proposal would raise roughly $8 million each year — almost a quarter of a billion dollars over three decades — and support development projects in neglected areas bounded by Ninth Street and Gregory Boulevard and by the Paseo and Indiana Avenue.
“As we celebrate, we have the opportunity to participate in our own economic empowerment for the central city and urban core, primarily those people who were disrespected and shunned and whose dignity was attacked during the presidential election,” Howard said.
“If this metro area can support a quarter-cent for animals, then can we not support a one-eighth cent sales tax for African-Americans and poor working white people?” he said.