When you think of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, do you think of just a day to relax and sit around since there aren’t any classes? Or do you think of a day to serve, educate, reflect and commit to making your community a better place?
The goal of the Martin Luther King Jr. committee in Kirksville is to help people in the community to do the latter and coordinate efforts to celebrate King’s legacy. The committee, made up of members from A.T. Still University, Truman, various churches, businesses and other community areas, focuses on education about the holiday and encouraging people in the community to commit to action.
Bertha Thomas started the committee eight years ago and is a commissioner for the statewide committee. Although King paved the way for a lot of great changes, the struggle to recognize various inequalities still exists, Thomas said.
“Because I’m a commissioner, the goal is to keep the life and legacy of Dr. King alive, relevant and to make sure that every year, folks in our community are not only reflecting but acting to make our community more inclusive,” Thomas said.
“Part of the issue is, lots of people think of the MLK day as kind of dead history, a day not to be in classes,” Thomas said. “But linking it with the issues of our current time is always the challenge and the opportunity.”
The committee typically chooses a theme for the holiday, and this year the theme is “The Dream is Here,” referencing King’s famous dream of equality.
For the past few years, the committee has chosen a nonprofit with a social justice mission to help engage the community with what the nonprofit is doing. This year the non-profit is the Pantry for Adair County.
Sheila Swafford, the executive director of the PAC, said the most significant need for the PAC is commercial refrigerators, which will help serve the food insecure and provide fresher food. The PAC has tried to make the pantry inclusive by giving food options, trying to give an experience similar to shopping at a grocery store where there are several different things to choose from. A fridge would help people to see what is available. The cost of the fridges is $11,000, but the goal for the committee is to raise $5,000-6,000.
Thomas said about $1,800 has been raised so far since Jan. 1, and it will last eight weeks. Thomas said the daughter of Amber Johnson, a professor at Truman, is 10 years old and will be giving a large portion of the funds she makes from her baking company, Yummy’s Bakery, to the fundraiser. Laura Bates, the director of the Student Union and Campus Activities, is going to help with an organization challenge at Truman to raise money for the pantry as well.
Thomas said it’s another year where a lot of in person events they hoped to do are not going to be possible because of the pandemic. However, there will be a few in person events, including “The Dream is Here Dinner,” and one on Truman’s campus called the “Unity Ball.”
The event was originally planned to be Jan. 20 but was postponed because of rising COVID-19 cases. The event will feature a silent auction and all proceeds will go to the PAC fundraiser, said Dr. Saint Rice, the director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion. The event will also serve as a culmination of black history month activities. The keynote speaker will be Curtis Ferguson who is the pastor of Rehoboth church, and free tickets will be available shortly. The event has been recurring and was started several years ago by Thomas, Rice said.
Rice said Truman is partnering with the city and ATSU. Truman virtually hosted a presentation by ATSU on Tuesday afternoon, and there was a celebration and trivia night in Baldwin that night.
Thomas also said there would be an art and essay contest for children in the community in order to kickstart the conversation with children and link King’s legacy to issues in the community. The children have done a good job at expressing what they would do to make their community better, Thomas said.
Thomas noted that the MLK Jr. holiday is the only holiday dedicated to service, where citizens are called to be active.
Every year the statewide MLK commission, which Thomas is a commissioner for, honors people in the state who have realized the legacy of MLK. Sheila Swafford was the nominee selected and received an honor from the state Saturday Jan. 15. Swafford was nominated because of the incredible resource that the PAC is, as they ensure there is culturally appropriate food, help international students if they are stuck in Kirksville because of COVID and do a lot of work with the public school system.
Thomas, who worked at Truman for 25 years, said in her experience, student organizations were willing to lend their time to people who needed help. While there is still much work to be done to ensure people feel included and respected, we have a much more diverse community in Kirksville and much progress has been made, Thomas said.
Rice said the idea of equity and inclusiveness rings true whether in a large metropolitan or small rural area. In Kirksville, the idea of equity and inclusiveness shows itself in the income, health and socioeconomic disparities in the community, Rice said. This is why it’s important to keep pushing King’s dream.
Thomas, who is almost 70 years old, has seen a lot of changes. She remembers times when she, as a person of color, couldn’t go to movie theaters or restaurants, her grandmother couldn’t vote and her mother went to segregated schools. Looking at this long arc of history helps her not become discouraged, Thomas said.
“I think that’s what keeps me motivated and also, boy, things were so much worse,” Thomas said. “I must admit working at Truman and seeing all the great particular students of color having so many more opportunities and the alums who are doing such incredible work, so when I look particularly individually and see all the progress that’s been made, it keeps me moving. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get discouraged from time to time. But I leave it to you guys, right? My hope is actually your generation, so don’t disappoint me.”
Thomas has also been inspired by seeing Dr. King in Detroit when she was 11-years-old. She’s also been able to spend time with Rosa Parks, John Lewis and other civil rights icons.
Thomas said the movement was made up of many people who we aren’t aware of today, such as those who left college to go register voters in Mississippi.
Rice agreed, saying the civil rights movement went beyond just what King did in the US, but that he was the springboard for what we now see as the civil rights movement.
“ … When we see the idea of civil rights back in the 60’s, it seemed to be a liberation of black people from oppressive periods, coming from even as far back as slavery, however when we start to really look at the foundation of civil rights, what it does is — it speaks for equality and inclusiveness for all people no matter who they are, no matter what their identity is, no matter what their culture is, it allows them to actually exist in the United States and enjoy the rights and benefits of any citizen that is living in this space — so that’s why I think it’s critical,” Rice said.
“It’s that old thing, do you have really a right to be tired and a right to give up and not be hopeful and not just do your little part when so many people did so much more?” Thomas said. “I always think of what I do as so little. I don’t think of it as insignificant ‘cause I do think it has some impact — impact on students, impact on organizations that I help, but I mean this is just such a modest amount of my time, so I think everyone can give a modest amount of their time.”
Thomas said she hoped students would take the day to educate themselves about why King and those around him were able to make changes and commit to taking action, even if it’s something small such as donating time or money. Students should dig deep and ask what they can do to move the needle closer to equality and equity and get out of their comfort zones, Thomas said.
It’s important that students move beyond just educating themselves and actually see it as their responsibility to take the next step.
Rice said that today’s generation has access to social media allowing for more involvement and breaking down barriers within communities. People can talk about things in real time, which also can have the negative effect of distorting facts.
“The United States has always had divisions. It’s just the divisions were not so pronounced,” Rice said. “Now individuals are taking sides quicker, and they feel empowered to actually come out and voice their thoughts and opinions.”
Rice said he hopes students get a sense of unity out of the day. He wants to encourage people to speak to others they don’t know and show kindness. To him, it does more to further the cause of equity and inclusiveness than any program. Finding a common thread of humanity is critical, Rice said.
“I think about once a year, ‘What have I done in my life to make things better for my community, for the state, for the world, whatever?’ I do take an inventory, and it’s important for me to assess, ‘Okay, have I done anything this year? Have I done anything this month?’ so just kind of doing a self audit and inventory,” Thomas said.