JEFFERSON CITY — Loudspeakers played blues and gospel music, a Beatles’ song and scratchy excerpts of old speeches and sermons. Women in red, black and tan hats sat beneath colored umbrellas that brought a small shadow of respite from the blaring sun and 93-degree heat.
A crowd of more than 150 gathered Wednesday on the south lawn in front of the Missouri Capitol and celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. It was King's voice and sermons that crackled through the loudspeakers, but it was community leaders of today that stood at podiums and remembered words that have guided their lives.
Jeremy Grooms, a junior at Lincoln University and a cadet with the school’s ROTC Blue Tiger Battalion, called out marching orders to his fellow cadets as they presented the colors, marking the opening of the ceremony.
“Left, left, left, right … left, left, left, right,” Grooms called out as two other cadets marched in unison up opposite ends of the Capitol steps. One carried an American flag and one carried a Missouri flag, placing them in holders beside a large statue of Thomas Jefferson.
“We’ve made a lot of advancement. We’ve come a long way,” Grooms said. “I am proud to serve my country.”
Many people in attendance said they thought the nation had come a long way from the kind of pervasive injustice and institutional racism of King’s day, but there was still a long way to go to achieve his vision.
Bonnie Smith, 57, of Fulton remembered staying home from school and watching the original speech on television. “It was amazing to me to see all those people.”
“We are still fighting all kinds of injustice, and we need to come together and love each other to solve some of these problems,” Smith said.
Doris Handy, 83, of Fulton has studied history and genealogy for much of her life and said she remembered many of the horrible things that transpired during the '60s, but she always tried to envision a better place and time.
“Life is about being hopeful. I’ve always been optimistic, always hoped for the best," she said. “Life can make you bitter or better, and I let it make me better.”
Handy and Smith stressed the importance of understanding history and promoting diversity in making progress toward more equality and better lives.
“Diversity is like a pot of soup; the more you put into it the more it enriches the soup,” Handy said.
“If you don’t know the past, you can’t move forward,” Smith said. “Got to have roots, or you’ll wither and die.”
Joshua Betts, 22, a student at Lincoln, said he came to celebrate the anniversary and hopes he can make a difference by improving his own community.
“For Missouri, a former slave state, to have this at the Capitol is a great accomplishment for the country as a whole,” Betts said.
Pointing to King and other civil rights leaders as exemplars, Betts said he hoped more black males would take leadership roles within the community and serve as better role models.
“It’s why I’ve done everything that I have done, because I want to be an asset, not a hindrance,” he said.
Waverly Wilson, 67, of Jefferson City was raised in Pemiscot County in southeast Missouri, which he said was one of the most segregated parts of the state. Segregation was a way of life when he was younger, Wilson said.
“There were just things that you knew not to do, certain people you knew you couldn’t be with,” he said.
But King worked tirelessly to change that reality. “He brought to light some of the things that were going on — everyone knew what was going on, but they were hiding their heads in the sand,” Wilson said.
Educational challenges, cycles of poverty and a lack of good jobs, which underpinned the original march on Washington, remain the biggest barriers to greater equality and justice, Wilson and others said.
“The bulk of it is just economics,” he said.
Walter Pearson, one of the event’s organizers, read a proclamation on behalf of Gov. Jay Nixon. The proclamation recognized the significance of the anniversary and the importance of King’s speech to Missouri and the whole nation.
The Rev. Cornell Sudduth of Second Baptist Church of Jefferson City said he thought King would "challenge us to be the dream." Sudduth highlighted the importance of education in addressing problems of inequality and poverty.
"Learning is never a thing of the past," he said. "All of us can still learn something."
He said King’s life provided an example of being unselfish and allowing oneself to be used for a greater cause.
"When called upon to serve, Dr. King sacrificed time with his wife. When called upon to serve, Dr. King sacrificed time with his family. When called upon to serve, Dr. King sacrificed time with his church family," Sudduth said. "And when called upon to serve, Dr. King gave the ultimate sacrifice — his life."
Looking forward and doing better
"We live in a state where there is still great disparity in wealth and opportunities and equality of justice," said Jim Hill of Missouri Faith Voices, one of the event’s main speakers.
He said King taught us that we should strive for "education and opportunity and a sense of hope for all in our community."
"I believe we can and we must do better. Now is the time," Hill said.
Five men read excerpts from King's original speech, including Bishop Lorenzo Lawson of Columbia.
Lawson said he remembered vividly the day King was assassinated and that it had come shortly after Columbia’s public schools were desegregated. He said he would carry the legacy and words of King with him as he serves on a task force in Columbia that set out Wednesday night on a yearlong mission to examine and propose remedies to violence.
"That’s the reason I accepted the nomination (to the task force). This is all a part of fulfilling Dr. King’s dream," Lawson said. "He would be appalled at the violence in the community and his would be one of the loudest voices."
At 2 p.m. — King delivered his speech at 3 p.m. Eastern time — the crowd went quiet for a moment of silence and listened as a chorus of bells rang out from inside the Capitol dome.
"Dr. King paid the ultimate sacrifice, so we could be free," Annette Driver, the leader of the Jefferson City ceremony, said.
Supervising editor is Gary Castor.