King Day at the Dome is a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of civil rights activism. U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker will both be speaking on this year’s theme of education, as will state Rep. Gilda Cobb Hunter.
The South Carolina chapter of the NAACP puts on this annual event. State chapter president Brenda Murphy says the group’s focus on education will continue throughout the year. It’s an issue the state NAACP decided to bring to the forefront this year based on South Carolina’s bottom-of-the-heap performance in school testing subjects like English and math.
Murphy says that since state Speaker of the House Jay Lucas has also declared education a priority this year, the state NAACP wants to unite the whole state to work on this critical issue, and King Day at the Dome is a great event to kick things off.
“We all need to be on board,” Murphy says. “It’s not just a legislative matter. It’s a statewide concern.”
King Day at the Dome began in 1986, when activist Kevin Gray was among those urging the state to recognize the federal holiday of Dr. King’s birthday. (South Carolina became the last state to do so, in 2000.) In those early days, says Gray, the gathering was all about expressing appreciation for the work a lot of people had done to move civil rights forward. Stevie Wonder came to that first celebration and led the crowd in a round of “Happy Birthday” for Dr. King.
In later years, the event came to focus on the Confederate flag that flew on the State House grounds.
But now, Gray believes, observance of the MLK holiday has turned into all talk and no action, when action is what’s most needed.
Ironically, he credits this shift to getting what the original group wanted: making Dr. King’s birthday an official holiday. He says that since it’s now a state holiday, any portrayal of radicalism is relegated to the past.
“Once the holiday becomes institutionalized, you have less to say about it,” says Gray.
But Gray says there’s still a lot of work to do, and that legacy of radical action should be continued into the present and future.
Lawrence Moore, co-chair and founder of SC’s branch of Our Revolution, an activist group that grew out of Sanders’s Medicare For All campaign in late 2016, finds King Day at the Dome necessary for another reason. He enjoys getting to work next to all the other advocacy and activist groups that come out to spread their own messages during the holiday. To him, King Day is about fellowship and reaching the public with not just his group’s message but the overall spirit of Dr. King’s fight for equality for all.
“It’s a great opportunity to have like minds come together and have everybody understand each other,” Moore says.
Lydia Oveta Glover, the president of Columbia’s local NAACP branch, agrees. Newly elected to her position in November, Glover’s goal for Columbia’s group is to carry out the NAACP mission, which includes making everyone feel welcome to participate in the group’s works.
“If you are a person, we want you to be a part [of the NAACP],” whether that is as a member or as someone who learns what the organization is all about, Glover says.
Murphy adds that the state NAACP follows the national chapter’s guidance in five categories they call “game changers”: advocacy, education, health care access, economic sustainability, and engaging young people. The state chapter decides what specific issues it wants to work on under that umbrella, and education is one way to make an impact by showing what still needs work. It also highlights conditions that need to be changed for the upcoming generations to be able to carry on Dr. King’s legacy.
The state group also supports the national chapter’s advocacy of nationwide concerns, such as supporting the anti-lynching bill that passed the U.S. Senate in December and is now pending in the House.
The state branch looks toward the national group for inspiration in planning future King Day celebrations as well, but Murphy says they choose their own emphasis every year. They’ll start planning for 2020 as soon as the 2019 day wraps.
What: King Day at the Dome
When: Monday, Jan. 21, 2019
Where: Prayer service and march lineup at Zion Baptist Church (8:30 a.m.); rally at South Carolina State House (10:15 a.m.)