On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and weeks after the monument honoring martyred abolitionist John Brown was defiled with racist graffiti, more than 100 community members, public and government officials, activists and students assembled to honor two titans in the fight toward equality and civil rights.
While standing on the John Brown Memorial at the historic Quindaro Ruins, members from the Kansas City, Kan., community and beyond took a collective look at the past — the good and the bad — to pave a map of hope for the future.
The event, which began at 4 p.m. Wednesday, was hosted by Eric Wesson of the Kansas City Call and featured brief remarks from Wyandotte District 4 Commissioner Harold Johnson, Quindaro historian and author Fred Whitehead, teachers from Wyandotte High School and Sumner Academy, and a stirring speech from Sumner Academy student Megan Dorantes.
Dorantes, a KCK resident who hopes to become a civil rights lawyer, brought a message of continuing the work started by Brown and King.
"Without him and the civil rights movement, I wouldn't be able to stand here today and give this speech," she said.
Dorantes read poetry from Langston Hughes, recited quotes from King and invoked the names of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and Stephon Clark as evidence of a fight for justice still ongoing.
"To those who vandalized John Brown's statue, I'm sorry that you're afraid of me," Dorantes said to the crowd. "I'm sorry that you think diversity is a threat to you. That vandalizing this statue and tearing apart this community by painting fear is how you want to be remembered. But guess who is showing their face today? Guess who is not afraid? We are not afraid."
The spirit of defiance in the face of oppression was a shared theme with other speakers.
"The same way that there are those who would defile, there are those who would stand up," Mayor David Alvey of the Unified Government of Wyandotte told the crowd.
Alvin Sykes has been standing up since that fateful day in April 1968.
"I remember where I was 50 years ago today," Sykes says. "It was the beginning of my activism."
Sykes has been a catalyst in the local and national fight for civil rights. He is a major reason why in 2004, the United States reopened the investigation into the murder of Emmett Till. In 2008, after more than a decade of lobbying and fighting, Sykes influenced Congress to sign into law the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act, a move that forced the U.S. Justice Department to look into more than 100 old civil rights cases.
Sykes fought to have that bill expanded by President Obama in 2016, and last year sat face-to-face with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to ensure the bill remained a priority under the Trump administration.
He was on 26th Street and Highland Avenue in Kansas City when he first learned of King's death.
"I knew there needed to be change. I just didn't realize that I'd be that change."
Sykes says it was just as important to him to be present today at the Ruins to stand in defiance against the vandals and their attack on the community as it was to be present in the aftermath of King's assassination 50 years ago.
"We have to turn the poison into medicine," he says. "We can't let it defeat us."
Other attendees, like Brenda Vann, said they came out to show gratitude.
"It's always important that we remember our history, particularly those who came before us," said Vann, a KCK resident since 1975.
Marvin S. Robinson II — a longtime KCK resident, Quindaro researcher and community volunteer who helped organize the commemorative event — says the event meant a lot to him because it was a chance to honor both the figures whose names everyone knows, and also those known by no one.
"Dr. King was killed in Memphis fighting for the garbage worker. The people that raised money for John Brown's statue, the first of its kind commissioned by poor people, were washerwomen," Robinson said.
"A part of today is about honoring the small people, those who we think are the least of us.
"Oftentimes, they're the ones who change the world."