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Events to celebrate King's legacy

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The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King waves to the crowd during the March for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963, in Washington, D.C.

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BY WILLIAM F. WEST
Staff Writer

Friday, January 11, 2019

Motorists driving on U.S. 64 through Rocky Mount are reminded of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because of green signage along a segment of the highway honoring the slain civil rights leader’s commitment to equality and peace.

A local panel seeks to go beyond King’s name being on expressways, memorials, roads, streets and structures throughout the region and the rest of the nation.

The Rocky Mount Martin Luther King Jr. Commission works to have local students educate themselves about the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize recipient. The students search archives and materials to find out more about King’s life and times as well as to relate King’s contributions to their lives and to learn to appreciate diversity.

Then the students each get the chance to make a three-minute speech to an audience downtown based on themes the commission chooses in advance.

Those speeches can be heard at the 2019 annual oratorical competition for students, which is set for 9 a.m. Saturday at the Imperial Centre for the Arts and Sciences.

Students from grades six through eight have been given the theme, “At the Center of It All,” and in that context can focus on hope, love or peace.

Students from grades nine through 12 have been given the theme, “Continuing the Journey.”

Rocky Mount Human Relations Director Archie Jones, who is a city staff liaison to the King Commission, said he believes the part of American history about King is probably being taught less in the schools now than in the past.

“And so what this does is that it really allows those students to dig a little deeper and do some extra research,” he said.

Jones also emphasized the oratorical competition enables students to fast-forward and align what they read about what was going on in King’s time with what’s going on now.

He said he believes that while conditions in communities have improved dramatically, there’s more that could be improved.

“There’s always going to be poor people in the community. There’s always going to be people that are less fortunate — and as long as we are human and society can continue, we will always have those challenges,” he said.

Originally from Atlanta, King in the mid-1950s rose to prominence as a minister in Montgomery, Ala.

Urging non-violent resistance to white supremacy, King and his followers would go on to lead the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma, Ala.-to-Montgomery March and successfully press for the passage of federal civil and voting rights laws.

King was cut down by a sniper in April 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., where he and his backers had gone to support striking sanitation workers.

Jones spoke about what he’d say to a young person who asked him what’s most important about King.

Jones cited the way King was able to unite people, as shown by the progress in the area of minority rights.

“It just wasn’t made by one group of people,” Jones said. “His philosophy and his method included everybody being at the table, everybody benefiting from the good things that were going on.”

As for the oratorical competition, the King Commission is asking for the students’ speeches to be typed; to have an introduction, body and conclusion; and to clearly reflect the themes.

The students also are being asked to be quite familiar with the text of their speeches and not exclusively rely on notes.

The first place winners are going to get the chance to give their speeches at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Breakfast.

The breakfast is set for 7 a.m. on Jan. 21 at the Dunn Center for the Performing Arts at N.C. Wesleyan College.

Rick Glazier, director of the N.C. Justice Center, is going to be the featured speaker for the program, which is expected to start at 8 a.m.

Glazier’s background includes having previously been elected to seven terms to the state  House of Representatives from Cumberland County. He’s also on the adjunct faculty at Campbell University’s law school.

The unity gathering is going to be followed by a day of service in King’s memory, with the city teaming up with N.C. Wesleyan College students.

Traditionally, the day of service involves cleaning parks and public spaces throughout Rocky Mount and helping aid the city’s senior citizens.

Jones emphasized he’s not only a student of King, he’s also a student of those locally who paved the way for the things minorities have access to now.

“And so I’m here because there were other individuals who came before me that really went through the struggle, helped really change the mindset of the community,” he said.

This is going to be the 31st year the city of Rocky Mount has celebrated King’s birthday.

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