Organizers of the area’s annual celebration of the life of Martin Luther King Jr. say they hope to rekindle and recommit Kansas Citians to the ongoing quest for racial and economic equality.
This year marks the 47th year that various groups, organizations, churches and municipalities have organized observances that honor the life of the slain civil rights leader, who was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.
“It is our hope the celebration is an instrument to expose Kansas City to the best and the finest of scholars, spiritual leaders, youth engagement that the country has to offer,” said the Rev. Vernon Howard, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City. “I really believe that we have done that this year.”
Those celebrations began Jan. 8 with an artist tribute that featured Smokie Norful, a Grammy award-winning gospel vocalist.
The observances conclude Monday with a celebration at Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, 2310 E. Linwood Blvd. Jonathan Butler, a University of Missouri graduate student activist, is scheduled to be the keynote speaker. Butler led a protest with a weeklong hunger strike that resulted in the resignations of university president Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.
Events sprinkled between those days include a youth leadership workshop, a scholarship prayer breakfast, scholarship dinners, lectures, interfaith worship services and community service activities.
Joshua DuBois, who served as President Barack Obama’s official liaison to faith-based organizations, gave the keynote address during an annual community luncheon held Tuesday.
“The holiday is a reminder of what has been done to form change to this country, and also it is a form of inspiration for others to take on what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. started,” said Kelsey Burris, 21, a junior at Rockhurst University who has helped organize several campus-related activities.
“Even though he did change some things, there are more things that still need to be changed,” Burris said.
Many event organizers said the annual celebration takes place during a period of social unrest and challenges to political and legal gains that have been realized since King’s death.
“The current struggle seems to focus a great deal on police brutality and racial profiling, as it should,” said the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver III, whom Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon appointed to the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission.
“However, I think the struggle for civil rights will never be won if we don’t look at empowering and educating our people. We have to look at how we empower and educate the African-American community of handling finances and building wealth,” Cleaver said.
Organizers say their annual celebration is one of the largest outside of Atlanta, King’s hometown.
The theme of this year’s SCLC celebration, A Legacy of Struggle … A Commitment to Justice and Equality, seeks to address economic and social disparities.
“There is an underlining message, and that is the struggle is not over,” Howard said. “This is not a colorblind society. Racism has not ended.”
Many other groups and municipalities on both sides of the state line also will sponsor activities and community service programs. However, the SCLC celebration remains the largest.
It also marks the first year the local entire King celebration has taken place since the death of the Rev. Nelson Thompson, the longtime event organizer and SCLC president. Thompson died at the beginning of last year’s celebration.
“We have been grieving, we have been remembering, but we also have been shaking it up in a way,” Howard said. “This (is the) first one without his planning hand upon it, and hopefully he would be proud.”