ROCKINGHAM — Celebrants will mark the 89th anniversary of the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a call for unity and a series of programs designed to appeal to those of all ages.
Centered on the second full weekend in January, Richmond County’s Celebration 2018 — themed “Never Lose Hope: Unity Wins!” — will feature a fancy-dress gala, a parade and march, a youth talent show, a prayer breakfast and ecumenical service, and a luncheon gathering to commemorate the work of the civil rights icon famous for his leadership in voting-rights marches and the “I Have a Dream Speech.”
A sometimes-controversial but powerful figure, King was assassinated 50 years ago in April.
“I remember those times,” says J.C. Watkins, who was refused the right to vote the first time he registered, in 1943, despite his verbatim recitation of the 14th Amendment, which granted him and all citizens of any race the right to vote.
“That’s why I need to vote,” Watkins remembers telling the registrar in the Ledbetter precinct, who refused to sign him up. “I’m a citizen, and I have a right to vote.”
But Watkins wasn’t granted the right until 1945, when he and wife Ruth registered together, the news of their feat gracing the front page of a local paper.
“I don’t know that it’s different now,” Watkins said of the current political climate in North Carolina and the nation. “They’re doing the same thing now — gerrymandering … and splitting the black vote.”
Watkins, who went on to become the principal of one of the county’s first integrated schools, the first African-American county commissioner and now, the director of the Leak Street Education and Cultural Center, has worked with the Leak Street board to develop a slate of memorial events and to form again this year the MLK/J.C. Watkins Ensemble, which will perform at the weekend’s ecumenical service.
The ensemble has been practicing for months, including Wednesday night. Their program will include pieces that stir the soul and the feet: “The Storm Is Passing Over,” “We Shall Overcome” and “Freedom.”
Ensemble member Jackie Barnes remembers hearing King speak in Maplewood, New Jersey. She was a teenager determined to hear him, even if she had to ride three city buses through places she didn’t know, by herself.
“I was determined to hear Martin Luther King,” she remembered. “Oh, the people. (The convention center where King spoke) was packed … and I was so young, but I wanted to see him.”
And despite the trauma of a solo journey, “it was worth it.”
Following is a list of events to mark King’s birthday weekend:
Friday, Jan. 12
MLK gala, 8 p.m. to 1 a.m., Liberty Place, 214 E. Washington St., Rockingham. Intended for adults, the semiformal occasion will offer hors d’oevres, music and dancing. Tickets cost $10 apiece. Call Curtis Ingram at 910-206-1240
Saturday, Jan. 13
MLK prayer breakfast, 9 a.m., FirstHealth Moore Regional Hosptial-Richmond, 925 S. Long Drive, Rockingham. The breakfast will be free and open to the public. Past winners of the Leak Street center’s MLK scholarships will speak.
MLK commemorative parade and march, noon, Richmond County Courthouse, downtown Rockingham. Participants should be at the Leath Memorial Library — 412 E Franklin St., Rockingham — at 11 a.m. to receive lineup assignments.
This year’s lineup includes representatives of local organizations and churches, the high school’s marching band and JROTC drill team, as well as the Gentleman’s Club of West Rockingham Elementary School, a group of young men learning social skills and leadership.
Ingram stressed that he sought diverse participants because King’s birthday was not just “a black holiday because King stood up for all races.”
“That’s one thing a lot of kids today — and some adults — don’t understand,” he said. “Everybody (should) know about the struggle.”
Those who wish to join the parade may call Ingram at 910-206-1240.
After the parade, top local law-enforcement officers will speak on the theme of unity at the old courthouse, and the Richmond Senior High School chorus will perform.
MLK Youth Extravaganza, 7 p.m., Leak Street center, 1004 Leak St., Rockingham. Youth who sing, dance or otherwise perform may participate. For details and to perform, call the center at 910-997-6238.
Sunday, Jan. 14
MLK ecumenical service of remembrance, 7 p.m., First Baptist Church, 201 N. Randolph St., Rockingham. Speaker will be Vice Bishop David H. Brown, Christ Memorial Church, Holy Church of God in Christ, Rockingham. The MLK/J.C. Watkins Ensemble will perform inspirational music.
Monday, Jan. 15
MLK Day luncheon, noon, Sidney Grove Agape Center, 401 McIntyre Road, Ellerbe. Tickets cost $10; call Dot Bynum, 919-219-0038. Speaker will be former state insurance commissioner and state Rep. Wayne Goodwin, D-Richmond, now chair of the N.C. Democratic Party.
Hundreds of children in area schools and churches have written essays and completed artwork to celebrate King’s memory. Examples of the best of these will be displayed Jan. 11-15 at Leath Memorial Library, 412 E. Franklin St., Rockingham.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]