Some reminiscences will never fade or be erased.
The moment that civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered is forever etched in Dr. Jesse Wilson’s memory.
The Memphis native and his sisters had just arrived home from junior high and were relaxing in their living room when the tragic news broke.
King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 while in Memphis to support sanitary workers and their boycott against companies with unfair hiring practices.
“I remember seeing that sombre face of a newscaster flash across the TV screen saying that Dr. King had been shot,” said Wilson in the keynote address at the Federation of Adventist Youth (FAY) 16th annual celebration to mark Dr. King’s birthday last Saturday night. “As a child, it seemed like the world stood still. A few minutes later, that same newscaster came back with the sad news that King had died.”
While racial violence sparked by the political and social tensions in the aftermath of the American Civil War led to the three-day Memphis Riots in 1866 that resulted in the deaths of 46 Blacks, Tennessee’s largest city was bereft of the violence prevalent in some of the other southern states at the height of the civil rights movement.
“That all changed the night King died,” said Wilson, who is a church growth consultant. “There were rioters running up and down the streets and people on AM radio stations urging the gang-bangers to come together. Memphis went up in flames and I remember clearly the things that went on there that night. I recall seeing the tears roll down my father’s face. I had never before seen my father cry.”
Born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929, King inspired, encouraged and empowered people from diverse backgrounds, races, religions and creeds to achieve greater racial equality, opportunities and justice. He also challenged them to use peaceful and non-violent methods to focus on and attain civil rights.
“For me, what was most impactful about Dr. King was his dream,” said Wilson, who is a religious studies professor at Oakwood University in Alabama. “I came here tonight to let you know that God is still looking for dreamers. As we emphasize the importance of excellence, especially among our young people, we need to recognize that his legacy is something that needs to be trumpeted, not only on January 15 and in February during Black History Month. We need to stress his legacy of excellence to young people every day of their lives.”
Wilson ended his address by leading the audience in the singing of “We Shall Overcome”, which is a protest song that became the key anthem of the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1950s and 1960s.
Edward Jr. and April Ellington, the children of late jazz musician and orchestra leader, Duke Ellington, who was the most prolific composer of the 20th century, attended the annual event.
“This is the largest celebration north of the border that I have heard of and we are so happy to be here to celebrate the legacy and the path the late Dr. King laid before us,” said April Ellington. “The sacrifices he made in the face of tireless racism and prejudice are enormous and should never be forgotten.”
Duke Ellington directed and narrated a song-and-dance revue – My People – which he wrote about African-American history that was presented in Chicago as part of the Century of Negro Progress Exposition. The revue’s most poignant song is a stunning tribute to King, titled “King Fit the Battle of Alabam”.
Nearly three decades ago, the siblings and big band jazz vocalists formed the Savoy Ellingtons, which perform around the world.
The annual Martin Luther King celebration featured interpretative dance, dramatic expressions, reflections and instrumentals.
In addition to the Savoy Ellingtons, the Toronto Children’s Concert Choir, the MLK Litaneers, the Children and Youth Dance Theatre, Praising Hands Sign Language Choir, Voices of Triumph and saxophonist Patrick Walton performed at the event.
One of the highlights of the celebrations in the United States to mark King’s birthday was the Martin Luther King Day of Service that was started by former Pennsylvania Senator Harris Wofford and Atlanta Congressman John Lewis, who co-authored the King Holiday and Service Act.
The federal legislation challenges Americans to transform the King Holiday into a day of citizen volunteer service in King’s honour. The legislation was signed into law by former president Bill Clinton on August 23, 1994. Since 1996, the annual Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service has been the largest event in the U.S. honouring the former Civil Rights leader.
The U.S. national holiday commemorating King’s birthday was enacted in 1993.
This year’s FAY event also featured a special tribute made by Krystene Robinson and Jordan Reid to Maya Angelou and Lincoln Alexander.
An American author and poet, Angelou died last May while Alexander – Canada’s first Black Member of Parliament, federal Minister and Ontario’s first Black Lieutenant Governor – passed away in October 2012 at age 90.
January 21 has been designated Lincoln Alexander Day in Ontario after a Private Member’s Bill, introduced by Wellington-Halton Hills Conservative MPP Ted Arnott and co-sponsored by Liberal MPP Bas Balkissoon and New Democratic Party MPP Paul Miller, was passed into law by the provincial legislature.