COVID-19 prevented the annual “King Day at the Dome” celebration at the S.C. State House of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life, but organizers held virtual rallies on the internet, issued press releases and tweeted about the assassinated civil rights leader whose nonviolent mass protests helped turn the tide of white supremacy in America.
One of the more extensive virtual rallies was hosted by the S.C. Conference of the NAACP, which brought together leaders speaking on a variety of topics about how to carry King’s unfinished work forward in the 21st century. Topics included engaging youth, health care, civic participation, criminal justice, economic sustainability and education equity.
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat, told viewers on Zoom that one of the most remarkable documents he has ever read was King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” when King in 1963 had been arrested. White preachers wrote King telling him that he was disruptive and that while his cause was right, his timing was wrong.
Time is neutral, King told them, adding he had concluded “the people of ill will in our society were making a much better use of time than the people of good will,” Clyburn recalled, adding, “Today, as we celebrate his 92nd birthday, let us think about that.”
The choice in “where do we go from here is chaos or community,” said Clyburn, quoting King.
Another NAACP speaker was the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control state epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell, who said the pandemic has brought to light the “vast disparities” in health care between people of color and more economically privileged white people.
“Nearly 400,000 South Carolinians have been infected by this virus, and more than 6,000 souls have been lost to it,” Bell said. COVID-19 disproportionately affects older people and African Americans more than others, she said.
“Wear your mask, practice physical distancing, and it is also why I am urging everyone to be vaccinated,” she said.
Quoting King, Bell said everyone is connected: “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one, directly affects us all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
Although “reprehensible” medical experiments on Black people in the 19th and 20th centuries have made many skeptical about getting COVID-19 vaccination injections, the vaccines are safe, Bell said.
“Protections have been adopted to prevent those horrible acts from ever happening again,” said Bell, explaining that an African American scientist is one of the nation’s leading experts for COVID-19 vaccine research.
Columbia Urban League CEO J.T. McLawhorn said “one thing this virus has taught us is we all must work together if we are going to help underserved, disadvantaged African American people to address some of inequities we are faced with today.”
Home ownership, education levels and job opportunities remain challenges, McLawhorn said, adding, “Today, it appears that education is not a priority.” But education is linked to economic progress, he said.
Meeting Place Church Pastor Bishop Eric Freeman urged viewers not to forget young people and to bring them to meetings where issues of the day are discussed.
In 1963 in Birmingham, King allowed children to make up the thousands of protesters against segregation. Children joined adults in being beaten, sprayed with fire hoses and jailed. When a Birmingham police officer asked a Black girl, “Little girl, what do you want?” she had an answer, Freeman said.
“The little girl looked back up at this officer, in all his gruffness, ugliness and rudeness, and without batting an eye and without flinching, she looked back up at the officer and said, ‘I want my freedom,’ ” Freeman recounted.
Bringing the energy and excitement of young people of all races and creeds into not only marches but into planning meetings is essential, Freeman said. “There’s an energy they have that we can’t understand.”
Freeman said, “There’s an old African proverb that says, ‘It is the young trees that make up the forest.’ ” Without young people, causes are in trouble, he said. Older people “have the wisdom, the expertise, the strategy. But they (youth) have the energy. Don’t leave them at the door.”
In an afternoon virtual event hosted by the City of Columbia, a choir sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and Mayor Steve Benjamin told viewers that King’s voice is a still “a beacon of hope” but “much is left undone.”
“In justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said Benjamin, quoting one of King’s most ringing lines. “I pray we all keep the hopes and dreams of Dr. King alive.”
Echoing DHEC’s Bell, Benjamin said that although South Carolina’s population is only 27% Black, they make up nearly 50% of the COVID-19 cases.
The nation is now facing an “unprecedented confluence of crises,” said Benjamin, citing the pandemic and racial issues and the economy. “I want to thank everyone who served in the cause of helping others,” the mayor said. “This spirit of service to others must not diminish. … I challenge everyone to find ways to serve.”
The event closed with a recording of “We shall overcome.”
Other S.C. leaders weighed in to mark the commemoration of King’s legacy, too.
In a press release, South Carolina’s U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, a North Charleston Republican, said, “The Reverend’s vision was that all God’s children — no matter the color of their skin —would come together to bring us closer to the concept of a more perfect union. We are living in a time when the American family must unify behind that single purpose.”
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Seneca Republican, delivered his tribute in a tweet: “In these troubled times, we need to pursue Dr. King’s dream for America with passion and vigor. The words of his ‘I have a dream’ address mean as much today as when they were delivered.”