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Stephens: Why do we observe a day for Martin Luther King Jr.?

Have you ever thought why, we as a nation, set aside a day every year to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? The third Monday of every January is dedicated to honor this man who in less than 40 years had a tremendous impact on how we live together as a nation. He had a dream of great change on how the people and races of this nation live together. And as that dream is being realized in many ways we pause to remember and honor this great leader.

Dr. King was born in 1929 in Atlanta, the son of the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. He was a graduate of Morehouse College, the Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University. While serving at the Pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery he led the bus boycott in that city, an event that was seen by many as the start of the Civil Rights movement. Not yet 30, he was the first President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

He wrote the powerful letter from the jail in Birmingham, shared his dream for America from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a million people, and was the leader of the March at Selma. He was recognized as Time’s Man of the Year and received the Nobel Peace Prize. He was truly the heart and spirit of the movement for racial justice in our nation in the fifties and sixties.

King’s life was cut way too short, assassinated on April 4, 1968, while helping to organize a demonstration on behalf of the sanitation workers of Memphis, Tennessee. While we lost this great leader we are still inspirited by his life, his words, and his faith.

Dr. King’s dream was, as he described in his closing words of his “I Have A Dream Speech”, a time when we would reach across all the barriers that divided and sing together the words of an old spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”

We know that there is still work to be done on fully implementing the dream Dr. King had for our land. There are still barriers to be broken and hearts to be changed. We gather each year at the annual Observation of this day to celebrate what has been accomplished and to dedicate ourselves to what needs to be done.

Covington was the third city in the entire state to set aside the day as a holiday in honor of Dr. King. This effort was led by former City Council member Janet Goodwin. Ms. Goodwin served on the Council for 38 years which is a state record of service as an African American female council member.

Another way that Covington honors Dr. King is by having a portion of the bypass named in his honor.

There will be an ecumenical celebration today at 3 p.m. at the Newton County High School Auditorium, with Emory University student Noah Cole the featured speaker. Cole is a native of Covington and was a leader at Oxford College of Emory.

The Martin Luther King Interdenominational Choir will sing during the celebration.

At the Covington celebration for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday there will three be very special awards given. These are the “The I Have a Dream Award”, “The Young Dreamer Award”, and the “Trailblazer Award.” These annual awards are given to those who live out in service the philosophy on justice and community empowerment. Nominations were sought from the community and will be awarded at the Ecumenical Service.

“The I Have Dream Award” is to recognize a person who models a spirit of peace, is humble and is steadfast in his or her convictions. The winner must also be an advocate for education at all levels. “The Young Dreamers Award” is for a student in the Newton County School System that demonstrates a passion for peace, unity, love, and diversity among one’s peers. “The Trailblazer Award” goes to a long time citizen of New County who is helping to bring change to the community with the follow through needed. Again in all three there is to be reflected a love for peace, unity and diversity.

Let us not be discouraged where we falter in fulfilling the dream as we once again renew our commitment to King’s cause as a nation and community.

In the words of King, in a sermon entitled “Shattered Dreams”, “Our capacity to deal creatively with shattered dreams is ultimately determined with our faith in God. Genuine faith imbues us with the conviction that beyond time is a divine Spirit and beyond life is Life. However dismal and catastrophic may be the present circumstance, we know we are not alone, for God dwells with us.”

B. Wiley Stephens is a retired United Methodist Minister and author who now resides in Covington.