A symbolic march on the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith campus highlighted the Jan. 20 observance of the life and legacy of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient.
The march, the crowning touch of a morning of activities sponsored by UAFS and the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Association, followed a breakfast and educational sessions.
Marchers included a variety of community citizens and University officials, all united in song as the bells from the campus bell tower played “We Shall Overcome,” considered an unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Adding to the festivity and solemnity of the event were a UAFS drum line, led by percussion instructor Josh Knight, and a color guard from the University’s ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) unit.
Paul B. Beran, UAFS chancellor, reminded those attending that this was the third year “of our gathering to break bread together and reflect.”
“I don’t know about you, but I’d say that three straight years makes this a tradition and a great way to spend the holiday.”
Beran urged attendees early in the day to not forget what Dr. King challenged the nation to do.
“To many, he was a troublemaker, to force the social change we now all celebrate,” said Beran. “He challenged the social order of things and pushed people out of their comfort zones.”
Beran added that King was a target of government surveillance and harassment, racist insults, bricks, bottles, numerous death threats and a knife in the chest in Harlem in 1958. King was then finally murdered in Memphis in 1968.
“During his short lifetime of just 39 years, Dr. King sought to create common ground where people from all walks of life join together to resolve issues, strengthen communities, reduce poverty and acknowledge dignity and respect for all,” Beran said.
Brue Wade, chair of the MLK committee, said showed appreciation for the MLK-related events.
“This has been a wonderful three-year journey. What an exciting collaboration,” said Wade, who stated that education was an investment “in our youth.”
Wade thanked those who came and those who planned the events, indicating an interest in continuing the tradition.
The morning’s educational sessions, which ran concurrently, included “MLK in the Study of Public History” by Dr. Steven Kite, UAFS assistant professor of history; “MLK and the Philosophy of Nonviolence” by Dr. Joshua Packwood, UAFS visiting professor of philosophy; “Freedom Riders and Personal Perspective on Civil Rights” by Euba Harris-Winton, who served as the executive director of the Mallalieu Community Development Center in Fort Smith for 20 years and has been active in local activities celebrating the legacy of Dr. King; and “The Slaves Have Names” by Tom Wing, UAFS assistant professor and director of the Drennen-Scott Historic Site.
Beran, speaking after the march ended at the UAFS bell tower, challenged march participants to not limit their efforts in working toward what King represented.
“The progress in civil rights realized in the past 45 years since King’s death can be quickly lost through apathy and ignorance,” Beran said. “This will happen if our effort to preserve Dr. King’s dream is limited to a symbolic march once a year. Dr. King’s dream, our dream, will wither if our resolve begins and ends with just this day.”
Other program participants during the morning included Dr. Leroy Cox, UAFS associate professor and MLK committee member, who served as master of ceremonies, giving a welcome at the breakfast and presenting closing remarks at the bell tower; Rev. Ron Forte of St. James Missionary Baptist Church, breakfast invocation; Rev. U.C. Washington of Mission United Methodist Church, prayer at the bell tower; vocalists Isabelle Poole and Val Robinson, both of St. James Missionary Baptist Church; and Dr. Stephen Husarik, UAFS head carillonneur, who manned the bells in the UAFS bell tower, starting the march with 28 tolls in observance of the years that the local MLK committee has existed, played during the march and concluded the celebration with a bell peal. Mark Horn, vice chancellor for university relations, was the on-campus chair for the event.
The day’s activities on Jan. 20 came after other MLK-connected activities during the preceding week and will be followed with another event at UAFS on Jan. 23. Crystal C. Mercer of Little Rock, daughter of legendary civil rights lawyer Christopher C. Mercer Jr., will give a dramatic performance Jan. 23 as part of “Unsung Heroes: Celebrating Freedom in the Visual and Performing Arts” at UAFS.
Mercer is a freelance performance artist and sole proprietor of Columbus Creative and The Social Soapbox. She is also the company and production manager of The Unified Artists Movement, a non-profit theatre company.
The 10 a.m. presentation will be held in the Reynolds Room of the Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center. The event will also include a student-led panel speaking on “Finding Your Voice in the Arts” and the presentation of the Unsung Hero Awards given by the American Democracy Project at UAFS. The American Democracy Project is a national initiative to foster responsible citizenship at all levels.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a federal holiday, held the third Monday of January.