St. Louis honors Dr. King
City, county mark MLK Day with calls to justice and action
By Nicholas Elmes
Organizations throughout the St. Louis region honored the memory and ideas of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. last week with calls for action in the community and events aimed at improving social justice.
The largest celebration, heralded as the second largest in the country, kicked off with over an hour of rousing speeches and performances at the historic old courthouse in downtown St. Louis before participants marched through the city streets.
Leaders from throughout the region warned that events from the past couple of years proved that Dr. King’s dream had not yet been achieved and encouraged those in attendance to fight against racism and injustice in a non-violent manner.
“When I think about Dr. King’s dream of equality I have to ask: is that dream realized or is it a dream deferred?” said City License Collector Mavis Thompson. “Despite our progress, we find ourselves being revisited by the ghosts of the past. Old battles against racism, indifference and injustice are still being waged.”
Thompson said the region must also do more to address homelessness and provide for those less fortunate.
“The struggle is not just black,” she said. “The struggle is for equality. Let’s go out and fight injustice together and in love.”
City Comptroller Darleen Green said that fight or justice also revolved around how funding was spent in the region.
“I cannot subsidize a stadium, I cannot subsidize a hotel, I cannot subsidize an office tower before I consider our young people,” she said. “When we subsidize we are short changing our young people in the classroom. We could have better teachers and pay them better salaries. We could improve facilities at the schools. We could improve police training. We cannot gamble our young people’s future. We must recognize our young people need our help and our hope.
“We must face our challenges head on,” she added, joining other speakers in saying that growing gun violence in the metro area was one of those biggest challenges. “In 2015 we had 188 murders and in 2016 we did not do any better.”
“Go back into your communities and tell your cousins, your brothers, and your uncles that we must keep the dream alive by not taking a life,” said St. Louis NAACP President Albert Manson, Sr. “Tell them to put the gun down. It is bad when your grandmother cannot safely operate her vehicle in the street without fear of them being taken from her because of some knucklehead with a gun.”
Khatib Waheed, a national presenter, facilitator and education consultant, provided a list of concerns that stemmed from racism and poverty in the area.
“In St. Louis, we are still ranked in the top 10 of the most racially segregated cities and regions in the country,” he said, noting ta variety of disparities between those living north of Delmar Boulevard and those living in the southern part of the city.
But Waheed said that with every concern he also saw opportunities to address inequality, racism, and issues of poverty.
In the county, two churches in disparate neighborhoods worked together on Martin Luther King Day to facility discussion across the county about just those issues.
“Typically Martin Luther King Day is a day when are off from work, but for the past several years at Wellspring Chruch we have been trying to make Martin Luther King Day a day to be on,” said Nickie Reinhart-Swierk, the coordinator of Institutional Readiness at the Center of Social Empowerment – a non-profit which arose from Wellspring Church’s involvement in the the Ferguson protests. “Martin Luther King Day is a day about justice in our communities and we have been encouraging people to not use the day to sleep in, but instead to go out and improve the world.”
She said in previous years the church has spearhead community volunteering on the day.
“That was all good and important work, but we kind of realized that that was not the work that changes the world,” said Reinhart-Swierk. “We wanted to more and really infuse justice into the day.”
So this year the church partnered with The Gathering in Clayton, and The Walker Leadership Institute at Eden Theological Seminary to create a day of learning and engagement centered on conversations to generate positive social engagement.
“We started with two different workshops in the morning,” said Reinhart-Swierk. “Our artist in residence David Winningham led a workshop on art and justice where he had participants do pinch pots where every different quality of the pot, the color, texture, shape, represented one part of your identity. So the color of the pot represented your racial identity and you would share with people at your table about your race and what that meant to you. The texture represented your abilities and you would talk about what it is like to live with or without an ability. It helps us understand that each of us are made up of all of these different qualities and you cannot generalize people.”
“It is a pretty complex topic focused on intersectionality and how we each come from many different places,” said Winningham.
The second workshop focused was based on a book by Wellspring Pastor Willis Johnson called “holding Up Your Corner.”
“We worked on acknowledging our place in racist systems and affirming those who are suffering under those systems,” said Reinhart-Swierk. “We talked about how the upheaval in Ferguson was portrayed a crazy riot instead of this outcry from a hurting community. Then we ended with a reading of “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and talking about what we could do tomorrow to star to create justice.”
In the afternoon Johnson led an informal discussion between area faith leaders and contemporary theologian Will Willimon, professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry and former dean of the chapel at Duke University.
Willimon, a white Southerner who describes himself as a “recovering racist,” talked about what it was like growing up in a racist community in the south and how he had dedicated his life to fighting for justice and greater social consciousness.
Willimon, who also provided a service at Wellspring Church later in the evening, said the issues of justice and inequality that had risen in the past couple of years were a good opportunity for those of faith to rededicate themselves to the true meaning of Christianity.
“I don’t believe the church has a social policy,” he said. “I believe the church is the social policy. There are a lot of good people out there that are worried and aware. They would love for somebody to say, we have a program and a proposition and something you can do.”
Photos by Nicholas Elmes
Cover-King1 A variety of performances and speeches calling for greater social justice in the region took place in St. Louis’ historic Old Courthouse on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Cover-King2 A large crowd gathered in St. Louis’ historic Old Courthouse last week to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The event was kicked off with a variety of performances and speeches calling for greater social justice in the region.
Cover-King3 A large group of are civil rights leaders and activists gather outside the Old Courthouse before embarking on a Martin Luther King Day march through downtown St. Louis.
Cover-King4 Dr. Will Willimon and Pastor Willis Johnson lead an informal discussion with area religious leaders over the place of social justice in today’s Christian churches. The event was part of a full day of activities organized by Ferguson’s Wellspring Church and Clayton’s The Gathering aimed at raising questions about and inspiring action against racism and injustice in the St. Louis area.