MAXTON — During Maxton’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day program Monday, more than one king was celebrated.
“I want to talk about three kings today,” said Rep. Garland Pierce, the keynote speaker for the event. “Rodney King, Martin Luther King and the King of Kings.”
Pierce, in a spirited speech, told the story of Rodney King, a black man who was beaten by police officers in Los Angeles in 1991, sparking outrage and raising racial tensions.
“He said those words that we all remember, ‘Can’t we all just get along?’” Pierce said.
That story transitioned into one about Martin Luther King Jr., and then one of “the real king,” Jesus Christ. Pierce said he was thankful to the Lord that those in attendance continue the mission of harmony and racial justice that King championed. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis. A federal holiday in his honor was established in 1986, and is marked on the third Monday of January, close to his birth date of Jan. 15.
Maxton was one of several Robeson County municipalities that celebrated the holiday.
In Lumberton, the Robeson County Black Caucus celebrated King’s life at First Baptist Church with keynote speaker Rev. Albert Moses. Rowland celebrated with a march through town, followed by lunch and a program, “Faith, Hope and Peace,” at the Southside-Ashpole Elementary School Alumni Building.
“I think it’s so important that our young people continue to realize how important Dr. King was and still is,” Pierce said. “ … You can kill the dreamer but you can’t kill the dream.”
During the hourlong program, Devonte McNeill, a junior at Purnell Swett High School, performed two songs on his alto saxophone, and the audience of about 50 stood to sing “We Shall Overcome.”
Maxton has been holding its celebration since 1978, and Effie McEachin and her husband James David McEachin remember the inaugural event.
“We were the first in the county to have a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration,” Effie McEachin said. “I think it’s important to continue. It’s important to remember that we are where we are because of what Dr. King did.”
Following the program, attendees took to the streets with a banner that read “Happy Birthday Dr. King,” and marched through downtown. .
“It’s important to teach our children so that they will remember the struggles of all people,” Effie McEachin said. “It’s not just the black people — all races benefit from what Dr. King did.”
At the Heritage Center in Fairmont, more than 250 people sang, clapped and celebrated King with performances by the Sensational Singing Seniors of Fairmont, the New Silvertones and the Fairmont High School choir. However, it was the Rev. Dr. Gentile Everette of Mill Branch Baptist Church who roused the crowd.
In a high-octane sermon reminiscent of King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, Everette called on churches that serve different races to come together.
“… I’ve been praying to God for many years that we will see a day when 11 o’clock on Sunday morning will no longer be the greatest hour of segregation, and that ministers from all across the country will get out of the business of trying to build a black church or a white church and focus on building the kingdom of God,” Everette said. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful when all of us could come together, and if you don’t praise like somebody else, that’s OK?”
Paying homage to the anaphora of “I have a dream” in King’s speech, Everette made clear that while society has made progress in fulfilling King’s dream, there’s work to be done.
“Dream of a day when ‘Black,’ ‘White’ and ‘Native American’ will be stripped from job applications and people will be hired on the basis of ability and not because of nepotism or because they are connected to a particular race,” he said. “Dream of a day when you will not have to deal with second class citizenship and let somebody know that you are somebody not because you are big or you are black or you are white, but because you know the man who walked on water and who parted the Red Sea.
“Dream of a day that you will be everything that God wants you to be and no devil in hell will deny you from being all God wants you to be. God bless you, may Heaven smile upon your heart.”
Mayor Charles Kemp said it was the best and largest since the program began in 2006.
“I don’t believe it’s one of those things you can just pass over and say, ‘We’ll let a church handle it or let them do it in Lumberton,’” he said. “A town needs to have their own ceremony.”
Patricia Blue, of Fairmont, has been attending for the past three years.
“This is one of the best ones they’ve had so far, but they’re always good,” she said.
For Blue, the holiday was one of service and reflection.
“It’s hopefully motivation that I can become a better person and be more helpful to my community,” she said.
Also in attendance Monday was Congressman Larry Kissell, who represents District 8, which will include most of Robeson County if redistricting maps as proposed pass judicial muster.
“I’ve been through Fairmont before, but this is the first time I’ve been to an event like this,” he said. “If Dr. King was here, he’d tell us we’ve still got work to do, and we know that. The progress has been made, we have a lot of work left to do and that’s what we’ve got to go about doing.”