Defending Democracy: Annual MLK Day celebration marks 50th anniversary in Kansas City

Layla Boyd, 5, of Atlanta, plays on a cherry blossom tree by the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial along the tidal basin in Washington, Thursday, April 10, 2014. The cherry trees have reached peak bloom. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Layla Boyd, 5, of Atlanta, plays on a cherry blossom tree by the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial along the tidal basin in Washington, Thursday, April 10, 2014. The cherry trees have reached peak bloom. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) AP

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MLK Day 2019

This year marks the 33rd national observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. Monday would be his 90th birthday.

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By 1969, Kansas City had emerged from the civil unrest ignited by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. the year before, a period that left parts of the urban core in ruins and laid bare the scars of racial injustice.

Kansas City responded to the riots by ushering a series of civic and societal reforms. That included the creation of the Kansas City Human Relations Department, a city agency tasked with investigating discrimination claims.

Also in 1969, a group of civil rights leaders, civic groups and local ministers came together to hold the first citywide celebration honoring the slain civil rights leader.

Fifty years later, that small gathering has evolved into a celebration that spans 10 days and is considered by its organizers to be one of the country’s largest.

“It speaks to the enduring commitment of a segment of the KC metro who discern the enduring need for advocacy and mobilization around protection and advancement of civil rights in the city, region, and country,” the Rev. Vernon Percy Howard Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, the chief organizer of the city’s King celebration.

This year marks the 33rd national observance of the King federal holiday. Monday would be King’s 90th birthday.

The Rev. Kenneth Ray, one of the early event organizers, said he is pleased with how much the event has grown and attracted a board appeal.

“Everything starts out slow and if you don’t stay on it and stay with it, it’ll fizzle,” said Ray, who in 1969 was among the first members of the local SCLC board. Ray also participated in the 1965 march to Selma, Ala., as part of King’s voting rights campaign.

“Every year it has become more momentous and we have been able to include more people,” Ray said.

The local activities were scheduled to begin Saturday with an artist tribute that featured a number local and nationally acclaimed gospel recording artists.

Each year, the SCLC sponsors the majority of the King Day programs in Kansas City. However, churches, civic groups and suburban municipalities such as Liberty, Independence, Raytown, Lee’s Summit, Overland Park also hold events that honor King.

Events this year include scholarship dinners, community forums, volunteer opportunities, a tribute breakfast, an interfaith service and a variety of other activities.

“The decades-long work of SCLC signals an effective passing of the torch from one generation to the next. I’m proud to be poised in the intersect of that passage as one who has and is being passed to, and who holds obligation to bridge the generations,” Howard said.

Kevin Willmott, filmmaker, screenwriter and film professor at the University of Kansas, was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the annual Rev. Nelson “Fuzzy” Thompson Community Luncheon held at the downtown Marriott Hotel at 200 W. 12th Street. Willmott co-wrote “Blackklansman” with filmmaker Spike Lee. He also wrote “Becoming Martin,” a play about a teenage Martin Luther King Jr. that was performed last year at the Coterie Theater.

During the luncheon, Bishop Mark C. Tolbert, senior pastor of Victorious Life Church and a member of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, will be given the SCLC President’s award.

In Overland Park, David Haley will be recognized at the 15th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy and Scholarship dinner for his years of service in Kansas Senate. Throughout the event, scholarship recipients will read their essays that honor King.

The Olathe branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sponsors an annual dinner marking the holiday and recognizing local leaders who champion King’s message of diversity and racial inclusion.

Other scheduled events include a Methodist minister’s fellowship at Ward Chapel A.M.E. Church at 21st Street and Prospect Avenue.

The festivities will conclude Monday, Jan. 21 with the annual community Mass celebration at 6 p.m. at Palestine Missionary Baptist Church. U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, who represents parts of Los Angeles and leads the Congressional Black Caucus, will be the keynote speaker.

Rosemary Lowe, one of organizers of the black political club Freedom Inc., will receive the SCLC legacy award for her decades of service to the civil rights cause. The Rev. Charles J. Briscoe will be presented posthumously the Rev. Nelson “Fuzzy” Thompson Legacy Award. Briscoe, who served 35 years as pastor of the Paseo Baptist Church, died in September.

Each award is presented in honor of the late Nelson “Fuzzy” Thompson, who served as president of the SCLC branch in Kansas City.

A citywide community forum will be held prior to the gathering at 3:30 p.m. with Jackson County Sheriff Darryl Forté and local rapper Royce “Sauce” Handy among the participants in a panel discussion titled: ”Moving from Mass Incarceration to Mass Mobilization: African-American Men Rising.”

The SCLC theme this year is “Defending Democracy, Advancing Justice, and Making Peace.”

Howard said theme speaks to the ongoing civil rights struggle for economic equality, racial unity and the end of discrimination.

“The half century of celebrations is both a reminder of this and a call to continued work in this regard to broaden justice and equity for all,” he said. “We dishonor those who paved the way for us if we do not keep that truth in front of us and respond in kind.”

Glenn E. Rice covers crime, courts and breaking news for The Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 1988. Rice is a Kansas City native and a graduate of the University of Central Missouri.