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Columbians celebrate MLK Day, inauguration

Monday, January 19, 2009 | 8:21 p.m. CST; updated 12:48 p.m. CST, Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Nathan Stephens and Harry Williams lead the Martin Luther King Jr. Day candlelight march that started at Douglass High School gym and ended at St. Luke United Methodist Church on Monday evening.

COLUMBIA — All day Monday, Columbians turned out to celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr.

At events around the city, people gathered to honor the birth of the iconic leader of America's civil rights movement who riveted the country with his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.

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For many, Monday wasn't only a commemoration of King, but the first day of a two-part celebration of civil rights and the inauguration of the nation's first black president.

The day began with the annual Poor Man's Breakfast at St. Luke United Methodist Church. Midday was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ceremony, and later in the afternoon, Stephens College hosted its annual awards convocation. A candlelight vigil brought the day to a close.

Here's how Columbia marked the day:

Poor Man's Breakfast, St. Luke United Methodist Church

At 3:30 a.m., Pearlie Moore rose to cook for the annual Poor Man's Breakfast at St. Luke United Methodist Church. The event is sponsored by the church and Almeta Crayton, with help from community volunteers and Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.

At 9 a.m., people were digging into the food Moore and other volunteers had prepared — steaming plates of eggs, bacon, sausage, fried potatoes and biscuits. The smoky smell of frying meat drifted through the room as guests sat on plastic chairs and greeted friends and neighbors.

Moore said helping with the breakfast gives her a sense of sharing.

"I've been inspired by Dr. King — his teaching, his philosophy, his way of life, his belief in the equality of all people," she said.

She paused as she stood in front of the church kitchen, and a big smile spread across her face.

"But most of all, I'm standing here proud that we're about to have our first African-American president. I didn't think I'd see it in my lifetime.

"That's one of the dreams Dr. King had, that people would be judged by their character and not their skin. And now it's come true. We've come a long way since the 1960s."

Eric Cravens, 42, paused a moment when asked what King meant to him. "If you'd asked me last year, I maybe wouldn't know what to say," he said. "But this year, I'm thinking about the election.

"People always say, 'You can do whatever you want.' This year, maybe I believe in it a bit more." 

Whittley Jones, vice president of Alpha Kappa Alpha, and Jessica Johnson, the sorority's president, both said they enjoyed the intergenerational connection the breakfast provided.

"In our African-American community, there tends to be a gap between generations," Jones said. "When you come here, you can connect with the older generation."

Lana Vaughan haslived in Columbia for 30 years. Now retired, Vaughan said she can remember seeing King on TV when she was younger and living in Colorado.

"He was someone who knew what the country needed at the time," Vaughan said. "I think it's dreadful he's not here to celebrate the Obama presidency. I think he would be proud.

"The country was falling apart. This country needed to come together, and Martin Luther King provided that," she said.

Like Moore, Almeta Crayton was working at the church early in the morning. Around 9:30 a.m., she stood near the entrance, looking tired but happy, and watched people move from the cold into the warm hallway.

"We do it for the unity of the neighborhood," Crayton said. "People breaking bread together and celebrating Dr. King."

NAACP Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration

At 11 a.m., a group of about 50 huddled at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on Stadium Boulevard. Valerie Shaw, treasurer of the state chapter of the NAACP, opened the ceremony that commemorated the 80th birthday of King.

Greg Emanuel said it was his first appearance at the annual NAACP celebration. This year, he began researching black fraternities and joined Alpha Phi Alpha, the same fraternity King belonged to. 

Emanuel said the event had a party atmosphere in anticipation of the inauguration Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

"It's kind of amazing that the inauguration is the day after his birthday. It's like his dream came true," Emanuel said.

At the Second Missionary Baptist Church, the Rev. Everett Hannon was hitting his stride at 1:30 p.m. during an NAACP-sponsored memorial service. 

His voice had a musical cadence, climbing to loud peaks and falling to softer valleys, drawing out the syllables of certain words. It echoed off the rounded white ceiling of the church, evoking cries of "Amen!" "That's right!" and "Mmm-hmm" from the audience. 

George Farris, Wanda Brown, and Stephany Cox were all honored with awards from the NAACP.

Hannon told the crowd how he felt the spirit move him in October when he saw Obama speak in St. Louis.

He bought a T-shirt that linked King and Obama as "The Dreamer" and "The Dream."

While he said work still remained in getting "rid of the spirit of poverty and getting ready for the spirit of prosperity," Hannon was joyful.

"It's Obama weekend for us," he said. "I'm going to shout out at the television tomorrow, 'Yes, I can!'"

Stephens College award convocation

Verna Harris-Laboy stood in front of a full auditorium at Stephens College shortly after 4 p.m. and accepted one of the college's Martin Luther King Jr. awards. The honor recognizes those who embody the principles and human values reflected in King's work.

Harris-Laboy was recognized for her work as the founder of The Ladies Night Out at Worley Street Manor. For more than two years, she has welcomed women into her home each Thursday for a home-cooked meal and informal counseling. Nearly 350 women have been touched by her kindness.

She also works with Living Large for Real, a free community program that offers spiritual growth and practical skills classes.

"I was just a little girl when King was assassinated," Harris-Laboy recalled. "I do indeed stand in his shadow. I never had to protest. The doors were kicked down for me."

Lorenzo Lawson, executive director and co-founder of Youth Empowerment Zone, was also honored, along with Patrick McMurry representing Love Inc. and Miranda Arens, a Stephens College senior who works with the American Humanics Student Association.

Youth Empowerment Zone works with inner-city, at-risk youth, and Love Inc. brings Christian churches together to help people in need. Arens' group seeks to raise awareness of human trafficking.

She noted King's ability to channel people's passions.

Arens said she has watched people transformed into "modern abolitionists, working to end the global slave trade."

Annual candlelight walk and memorial celebration

At 6 p.m., the gym at Douglass High School was the gathering place for the annual candlelight walk and memorial celebration.

Birdie Duff, an 18-year resident of Columbia, leaned against the doorway to the gym and watched the group mingling before her. This was her first time attending the walk.

"I've been watching a lot of programs on television, looking at the way black people were treated in the past," Duff said. "It makes me want to get out and do my part."

Pamela Nunnelly, a high school history and government teacher, said she does something to mark the the holiday every year.

"He's part of American history, and it's important for kids to know where they came from. You've got to 'know from whence you came,'" Nunnelly said.

Half an hour later, the crowd had swelled to more than 50. Bundled in coats and holding candles in their hands, people slowly snaked out the door, across Providence Road and up the hill to St. Luke United Methodist Church. The blinking lights of two police cars blocking traffic lit up the scene.

"We shall overcome someday," part of the crowd sang softly and slowly.

"Not someday. Today," declared one man's voice.


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