When a group of African-Americans organized the first Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in Clay County decades ago, finding a location to host the event was never an issue.
The festivities were either held at predominantly African-American St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church and the First Baptist Church, both located in Liberty.
But organizers sought to attract whites and other non African-Americans to the annual event to celebrate and reflect on King’s message of racial tolerance and equity.
“We wanted more people to become engaged and involved,” said Cecelia Robinson, a longtime program coordinator. “We went to the Catholic church and we had it there. But what happened was very few of their members would come.”
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Organizers were not discouraged and continue to exam ways to boost attendance. That paid off in the 1990s when organizers forged a partnership with William Jewell College.
Now in its 34th year, the annual Liberty event draws hundreds and brings in nationally known speakers and performers. It is one of several King celebrations held in suburban municipalities across the Kansas City area.
“Maybe the residents then didn’t see their connection as much as they do now,” Robinson said. “It takes time for a community to understand and be a part of human relationship building. There was the fear of the unknown. It was like, ‘What are they doing?’ ”
The Liberty event will be held at 10 a.m. on Monday at Gano Chapel on the campus of William Jewell College in Liberty. The Rev. Vernon Howard, an alum, will give the keynote speech.
Here are some other King celebrations:
The Raytown Community Interfaith Alliance will have its 21st annual MLK celebration at 4 p.m., today at Raytown South High School, 8211 Sterling Avenue. Mayor Mike McDonough and Alvin Brooks, former Kansas City Mayor Pro Tem, are the featured speakers.
The program also includes the Raytown South chorale, the Raytown South Middle School jazz band and the MLK Today essay contest. Proceeds raised from a freewill offering will benefit the Raytown Emergency Assistance Program and the River of Refuge, a shelter for homeless families.
For Clarence Small, the goal of the annual King celebration in Kansas City, Kan., is simple.
“The main thrust is to bring awareness to what Martin Luther King Jr. stood for and the significance of the dream through unity, love and peace,” said Small, the program coordinator.
This year’s event will be held Monday at the Jack Reardon Convention Center at Fifth Street and Minnesota Avenue. It will be preceded by the annual motorcade for hunger, which will depart at 10 a.m. Monday at the Mount Zion Baptist Church at Fourth Street and Richmond Avenue. Churches, organizations and individuals are asked to donate canned food and non-perishable items. The goal this year is to collect 5,000 items, which will be donated to various food kitchens throughout the city.
Small said the annual event is important to ensure future generations learn and embrace King’s civil rights legacy.
“There are many young people who didn’t have the privilege or opportunity to see Dr. King in action, it is really important to keep this kind of celebration going and to ensure that the new generations understand the significance of the blood, sweat and the tears and the sacrifices that were made,” he said.
This year’s theme is: “Continuing the Dream through Love and Peace in Times of Peril.” The Rev. Calvin O. Butts, pastor of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem in New York City is the featured speaker.
The program will include a 200-voice gospel choir that will perform a variety of songs popularized during the civil rights era. Scholarships will be awarded to graduating high school seniors.
“I don’t want to take peace for granted, I don’t want to take civil rights for granted because a lot of people sacrificed their lives and their livelihoods in order for that to happen,” Small said. “We need to do a better job to love each other and exhibit peace because the times of peril are before us.”
Lee’s Summit School District Superintendent Dennis L. Carpenter will be the keynote speaker at the MLK celebration in Lee’s Summit on Monday. A preshow starts at 5 p.m. and the program follows at 6 p.m. It will be held at the Pavilion at John Knox Village, 530 NW Murray Road. Choirs from Pleasant Lea Elementary and Lee’s Summit High School are scheduled to perform.
In Independence will have its 31st annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration. It is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, at the Truman Memorial Building, 416 W. Maple in Independence. The theme of this year’s celebration is “The Color of Unity.” The winners of the $500 John Olivarez scholarship and eighth-grade essay contests will be presented.
Ed Eilert, chair of the Johnson County Commission, will be honored during the 14th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy and Scholarship Awards Dinner on Monday at the Overland Park Marriott Hotel, 108th Street and Metcalf Avenue. The event is sponsored by the Olathe branch of the NAACP.
The social hour begins at 5:30 p.m., followed by the dinner at 6 p.m. The program will start at 7 p.m. Throughout the evening, recipients of the group’s scholarship program will read from their essays honoring the slain civil rights leader.
The annual Johnson County King celebration was scheduled for 1 p.m. on Saturday at Blue Valley West High School, 16200 Antioch Road in Overland Park. This year’s theme was “The Dream: Still In Search Of Freedom.”
On Tuesday, students, faculty and others at MidAmerica Nazarene University will honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. during its 9:30 a.m. chapel gathering. The event takes place at College Church of the Nazarene at 2020 E. Sheridan in Olathe.
Robinson, the coordinator for the MLK program in Liberty, said suburban communities have become diverse and King’s message of unity continues to resonate.
“Dr. King had a dream,” Robinson said. “We are a part of that dream and do want to make that dream come true.”