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Charleston's annual MLK celebration honors King's life, legacy of combating racism

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A few years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, community organizers in Charleston proposed holding a ball to honor one of the greatest proponents for civil rights.

Christine O. Jackson, then executive director of the Young Women's Christian Association and first cousin of Coretta Scott King, was offended. She felt a gala was not enough. She proposed adding a worship service to honor the humanitarian.

"Having a ball would not have placed honor on who Martin Luther King Jr. was," Jackson said. “It has to be something that was fitting for his accomplishments and what he had given to this nation."

Now, 47 years later, Charleston's annual MLK Celebration will see thousands travel from all over to participate in the celebration that includes a massive parade, ecumenical worship service, racial equality workshops, a poetry slam and a breakfast for professionals. This year's event, held Jan. 13-22, is themed “Embrace the Dream, Create the Change." 

In a city marred by racial violence, the annual celebration reminds guests that King's dream is still not fulfilled.


The YWCA, which sponsors the event, held its first MLK Celebration in 1972. It consisted of a gala and worship service that was held at the all-black Rivers High School. The YWCA discontinued the ball the following year.

For several years, the celebration consisted mainly of a worship service held at Morris Street Baptist Church.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. was the event's third speaker.

At the time, most of the celebration's participants were black. But this was contrary to King's message, said LaVanda Brown, who currently serves as the executive director of the YWCA Greater Charleston.

“Dr. King’s fight for civil rights was a fight for human rights. He was very clear this fight was for all of us," Brown said. "As long as we are separate and treated separate, none of us are truly free."

It wasn't until the parade was added almost 30 years later that more white community partners and leaders took part. Today, schools, businesses and organizations from across the tri-county participate.

Then-Charleston Mayor Joe Riley helped start a breakfast that became part of the event that features professionals of all backgrounds.

'We're not done'

The annual event honoring King has grown in popularity. Around 30,000 participants come from across the state to participate. Nearly 700 community and business leaders and individuals attend the MLK Business and Professional Breakfast each year.

It's also grown from a one-day event to a 10-day celebration. This includes a parade, ecumenical service, racial equality workshops, poetry slam and breakfast.

The parade is always highly anticipated. The Burke High Bulldogs' marching band excites the crowd with blaring horns and clashing cymbals. City council members wave from the procession. Children line the sidewalks toting "I have a dream" signs. 

The annual celebration also tells King's story through the arts.

Marcus Amaker, Charleston's poet laureate, headlines the poetry slam, and prizes go to young winners. It also features a hip-hop performance. The event provides a chance for artists to address Charleston's race-related issues, like gentrification.

"Gentrification and social justice issues are on a lot of artists’ minds," Amaker said. "The poetry slam is one of the many avenues for us to express ourselves and inspire dialogue and change. ... When given a platform, Dr. King always spoke the truth through a profound understanding of love. That is what I seek to do with my art. Whether it’s music or poetry, my artistic voice is an echo of the truth."

Talking about tough issues has been a focal point for organizers who have fought to share King's message in the midst of racial injustice.

After a self-avowed white supremacist killed nine parishioners inside Emanuel AME Church in 2015 — a church where King once spoke — the YWCA made the Racial Equality Institute part of the MLK Celebration.

The institute helps professionals and community leaders develop tools to combat racism.

Charleston resident Mack Bigby attended one session on Thursday. He just started "Kicking Racism," a grassroots organization dedicated to fighting prejudices.

"We're a little too divided," Bigby said.

Brown said these kinds of events help move King's message into real action.

"I’m constantly reminding every audience that we’re not done," Brown said. "There have been laws that make us act differently toward each other. But the outcomes speak for themselves. We’re not done. That’s how we bring attention to it. Our message of eliminating racism means we have to keep talking about this until it's not an issue anymore.”

Follow Rickey Dennis on Twitter @RCDJunior.

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