Martin Luther King Jr. was not yet 40 years old when his life was taken by a sniper in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968. If not for that, perhaps he would have still been here for his 87th birthday on Friday, to offer sage, analytical insight on the events and unrest that have re-intensified the spotlight on race relations in this country, in particular the slaughter of nine prayer-meeting participants at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., last June.
Though Dr. King preached nonviolence as the preferred means to an end, he once offered this definition: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Indeed, that concept has been cited as the underlying cause of violence in cities such as Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., triggered by the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers, but kindled as well by long-festering anger.
As King witnessed the ugliness of segregation and the Jim Crow laws that evolved from centuries of slavery, he reminded us of this: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” King recognized that even in those racially tumultuous days, the differences among us were more broadly socioeconomic, identifying the root cause as the gap between the haves and the have-nots that has grown so much more vast today.
This year marks the 30th official King Day observance. It has, like other such federal holidays, become part of our national fabric. But we are also reminded that the nation waited until 18 years after his death to give him and his work in the civil rights movement the recognition they deserved.
In Virginia, from 1984 until 2000, King’s birthday was incongruously commemorated as Lee–Jackson–King Day, a combined holiday that also marked the January birthdays of the two Confederate generals. It wasn’t, in fact, until 2000—32 years after King’s passing—that all 50 states officially observed the civil rights leader’s birthday on the third Monday of January.
It is in the spirit of his legacy that we celebrate his birthday with a variety of events and activities. Local celebrations include today’s 10th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration at James Monroe High School, and Gospelfest, a King observance at Courtland High School on Monday, which is MLK Day.
The James Monroe celebration, sponsored by the Partnership for Excellence, features remarks from local leaders, music, children’s activities, and King’s words read by local students. The Courtland program brings together the Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) Mass Choir, Renewed Strength, Faithful Connection and others for a rousing afternoon of music.
Also on Monday is an MLK holiday Day of Service sponsored by the Bragg Hill Family Life Center and the American Red Cross. Volunteers will install free smoke detectors throughout the Bragg Hill community. Call 540/371-3662 to volunteer.
All of these are fitting tributes. They will pay homage to the faith, unity, inclusiveness, desire to help one another and the peaceful journey toward change that King espoused.