A diverse crowd of about 250 filled the sun-dappled sanctuary at Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church in Athens during Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremony.
The Lincoln-Bridgeforth Park Committee sponsored the 17th annual event featuring several selections from the Round Island Creek Male Chorus, an awards presentation and a speech from Birmingham pastor Dr. Edward Jackson Sr., who drew a standing ovation at the end of his 30-minute keynote address.
The federal government established MLK Day 28 years ago to honor the slain civil rights leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Montgomery pastor. At the age of 39, King was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.
Mayor Ronnie Marks said as a young boy growing up the Ripley community, he was not raised to notice the color of someone’s skin but came to realize this approach was not universal.
He said MLK Day not only serves as a reminder of King’s life and legacy, but also to spur younger generations to continue his work for equality and social progress.
“This is not only a celebration … I also encourage young people to not give up the dream, and to fight for justice,” Marks said. “All of us that grew up in the 50s and 60s, we know the importance of Dr. King. I look back at (the civil rights era) and think how ignorant we were, and how we have a long way to go.”
Jackson, pastor of The Greater New Antioch Baptist Church in Ensley, grew up in Birmingham and recalled the obstacles that civil rights leaders overcame, including being jailed and having their homes bombed.
He paid tribute to those leaders for “allowing him to be able to buy a house on the outskirts of Birmingham” and being able to take a job as a bank loan officer after graduating from college.
“Dr. Martin Luther King has meant much to America, and America has come a long way,” Jackson said.
He said segregation and the bombings of churches and homes prompted King to join the civil rights effort and credited his teachings with bringing together people of varying racial and cultural backgrounds.
“It served as a genesis … and helped to hurl Dr. Martin Luther King to the forefront, to a fight that had to be fought,” said Jackson, whose voice steadily rose and ebbed as he alternated between sharing his faith in God and the purpose of King’s death to telling anecdotes and cracking self-deprecating jokes about being a preacher.
“Because of Dr. King, I have black friends, but I also have white friends who are as close to me as my biological family,” he said.
According to his Nobel Prize biography, King wrote five books, gave more than 2,500 speeches and traveled more than 6 million miles from 1957 to 1968 to spread his message about achieving equality through peaceful protest.
Jackson described King as “a dreamer” and a “modern prophet,” and said his life and death served a divine purpose.
“As Dr. King neared his death, he was able to give to his people a vision God gave to him … he was able to look down the road and see a time of deliverance,” he said. “Dr. King saw a better day — not just for his people but all people … our cultures may be different, our worship may be different but we are of one God.”
Robbin Hines, president of the Lincoln-Bridgeforth Park Committee, presented the Youth Citizenship Honor to Athens Bible School freshman Lacey Beth Black, 14, for her service to her school and involvement with the Mayor’s Youth Commission.
The Dr. C. Eric Lincoln Humanitarian Award went to Sweet Home M.B. Church for serving as the ceremony host and to retired Athens High School teacher Thomas Brown for his commitment to the community since moving to Athens more than 50 years ago.
“He has been an encourager and inspiration to many,” Hines said. “He’s been a man of integrity and humility for the city of Athens for more than 50 years.”