Kirksville community celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Mayor Zac Burden reads from a promt for the Kirksville MLK VIrtual Celebration 2021. The video was one of several events planned around the day. Photo provided by KTRM Studios

The Kirksville community held several events honoring Martin Luther King Jr. during the days surrounding the holiday. Events included a virtual celebration with messages from various local community members, virtual children’s or adult’s yoga classes with Tarasa Gardner and tie blanket making with the Student Activities Board

The virtual celebration was called “You belong here, all are welcome here – Kirksville MLK virtual celebration 2021.” The video was presented by the Kirksville Martin Luther King Jr. Citywide Committee, produced by KTRM Studios and edited by Katie Varner. Speakers included Mayor Zac Burden, Bertha Thomas, founder and chair of the Kirksville Martin Luther King Jr. Citywide committee and Stephanie McGrew, A.T. Still University’s diversity and inclusion coordinator. Thomas said the video will be on Youtube for the next month.

Burden was the keynote speaker for the event. He spoke about the importance of inclusion and the ideals that Kirksville has historically valued. He spoke about local history and how Kirksville has a legacy of being a home of travelers. He encouraged the continuation of this legacy, emphasizing that people should work on what they have control over and take small steps such as recognizing bias and having kindness.

“Let us take action together that further moves these values from the conceptual to being fully integrated within the fiber of our daily being,” Burden said. 

During the celebration, Thomas presented community member Ginger Nolker with the Distinguished Community Service Award on behalf of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. State Celebration Commission of Missouri. Nolker, who launched the “You Belong Here Kirksville” campaign, told the story of how simply planting a sign in her yard in response to hateful and racist signs turned into a city-wide movement. She also helped raise money for more diverse books to be distributed in local schools to remind people they all belong here. 

Kirksville community member Ginger was presented with the Distinguished Community Service Award on behalf of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. State Celebration Commission of Missouri. Nolker launched the “You Belong Here Kirksville” campaign last year. Photo by Genevieve Tlustos

The video also included presentations that celebrated inclusion and diversity, a song by Joyce Carnes and a dance performance by Sydney Graves. 

Thomas, who is also the diversity inclusion consultant for Truman, said this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day was different from past years because there were fewer in-person events. Thomas said she thought the holiday was still a meaningful one, and several in-person efforts were still possible.

Thomas, who was 11 years old when she saw King speak in Detroit, said being alive during the civil rights era was really impactful in her life. Since then, everything she’s done, including jobs and community positions, has been influenced by how she got to see not only King’s work, but also the difference that ordinary people accomplished to make our country more equitable. While she’s seen improvement, she said there’s still a lot of work to be done until all people are given the opportunity to realize their potential and reach their goals and dreams.

“I think [the holiday] is important every year, but I think maybe this year it’s even more important,” Thomas said. “This is really a time where there’s been a lot of disunity all around, a time where people were feeling their separateness more than their sense of being unified. Also, there was the racial reckoning that we all experienced particularly this summer after the more highlighted killings of certain African American men and women, so it just seems like this year we needed to think about unity and how our diversity is really important.” 

Thomas said she founded the Kirksville Martin Luther King Jr. Citywide Committee in 2015. The committee decided the theme for this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday would be “You belong here, you are welcome here” as an extension of the initiative started by Nolker. The committee has been working with community members on the effort. 

There have been many different local members who have worked together to promote unity and belonging, Thomas said. Community members raised $2,000 for the Adair County Food Pantry. Local churches are encouraging their members to watch a movie about racial justice and facilitate conversations about racial equity. Knitters have been making dolls to go along with the diverse book initiative. 

“I wanted to really highlight and raise up what we can all do to make our communities more welcoming, belonging; make our community stronger by embracing everyone who lives, works, studies here,” Thomas said.

Bertha Thomas, founder and chair of the Kirksville Martin Luther King Jr. Citywide Committee, was one of the speakers in the virtual celebration video. Thomas also serves as the diversity and inclusion consultant for Truman State University. Photo by KTRM Studios

Tarasa Gardner, a local yoga instructor, taught classes called “MLK Day Peace, Unity, and Inclusion Virtual Yoga Classes.” Gardner taught two virtual classes, one for children and one for adults. She said the idea of an inclusive community where people feel like they belong is a great goal and one that she has tried to implement in her own studio. 

Gardner began her process of incorporating bigger themes of unity and peace by thinking about the theme and different energy centers or areas in the body that represent those ideas. For example, for opening the heart to others and speaking up for truth, she focused on poses that opened the heart and throat. She also mentioned the importance of the beginning of the class where she sets up the theme for the students, along with the end of the class where students get a chance to think about the ideas and how to apply them to their lives. 

Gardner said it’s important that even though an individual might think they are inclusive, they need to make sure that they are doing all they can. The reality is there are still people in Kirksville who feel like they don’t belong, Gardner said. 

“We can all do more and do our part, and so if leading a yoga class is a way that I can help try to empower ourselves to send that energy out and be more active, I’m eager to do that and it’s an honor to do that,” Gardner said. “Hopefully I can continue to find other ways to do that, but I think that’s a really important message and theme for our community to really think about.”