In typical times, Martin Luther King Jr. Day would find Anna Jones circulating among a crowd gathered in West Point for a procession. When blessed with good weather, the march can draw up to 300 participants, Jones said. Together, they walk down East Half Mile Street, to Mary Holmes College. There, an audience sometimes topping 700 packs the gym to hear a keynote speaker and to honor the late King, who advocated for nonviolent activism in the civil rights movement and for service to community. In this year of unrelenting pandemic, however, the capacity rooms, the big breakfasts, health fairs, performances and processions usually seen in the Golden Triangle have been subdued by COVID-19.
“We’ve been doing this since 1989, and this is the first year we’re not marching,” said Jones about the West Point events she helps organize with the MLK Committee at Davidson Chapel. “We normally have the community march and then a program, singing and dancing and choir groups, but this year it’s not possible because of COVID. Everybody is just being very cautious.”
The global pandemic is changing the way area counties will mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day tomorrow. It has not dampened determination. Volunteer service, always a part of local observances, is being emphasized. In West Point, for example, the MLK Committee is hosting a drive-through food donation drive Monday from 9 a.m. to noon. Non-perishable food items for food pantries can be dropped off at the chapel located at 218 MLK Drive.
Adjustments in Columbus
United Way of Lowndes and Noxubee plans a three-part approach. Errolyn Gray is director of the volunteer center.
“Usually every year there are organizations that partner to do a citywide observance, with a breakfast, a speaker and a service project,” said Gray. “Because of COVID, we won’t be having the breakfast or speaker, but we are doing three projects instead.”
One is a drive-through distribution of PPE (personal protection equipment) and sanitizing products to pre-registered childcare facilities. Gray studied statistics on the need for these supplies.
“We looked at averages of PPE day care centers were going through in a day,” she said. “On a state level, on average, it was over 500 pairs of gloves a day. … We always want to be responsive to what the community needs, and that’s something we need now.” The distribution will take place at the Columbus Soccer Complex from noon-2 p.m. Monday.
Secondly, United Way of Lowndes and Noxubee will conclude a food pantry restock project that has been underway since Dec. 8. Donated foods will go to four local pantries, Salvation Army, Wesley United Methodist Church, Helping Hands and Columbus Air Force Base.
“We’re also doing a ‘Pay it Forward’ (initiative). We’re asking people to take a picture at any kind of service they do (on MLK Day) and post it to #payitforward and #MLK Day,” said Gray. “We’re so isolated right now, and this is kind of a way for us to feel connected, all doing something on the same day.”
Changes for Starkville events
The Mill in Starkville is traditionally the scene of a large unity breakfast, complete with speaker, followed by hundreds of volunteers dispersed to local nonprofit agencies such as Starkville Parks and Recreation, Boys & Girls Club, Sally Kate Winters and Habitat for Humanity. It’s part of Mississippi State University’s MLK Days of Service.
The 27th annual breakfast this year will be a virtual event featuring a keynote by former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Reuben Anderson. It will broadcast Monday at 8 a.m. on MSTV and livestream at mstv.msstate.edu. It is expected to re-air at 11 a.m., 2 p.m, 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.
At 10 a.m., volunteers who have signed up will undertake projects at agencies, but unlike years past, there will be no day-of signup or transportation to service sites. Volunteers will report directly to their designated agency. Days of Service will take place Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
“MLK Day of Service is a way to honor the legacy and teachings by engaging in community activities that address social problems,” said Jordan Laster of the MSU Office of Student Leadership and Maroon Volunteer Center. “Mobilizing people from different experiences brings us together; it can instill unity and solidarity while building stronger communities.”
All efforts are made to follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines and MSU recommendations to prevent spread of the coronavirus, Laster noted.
Unity Park honorees
In recent years, Unity Park in downtown Starkville has been a place of celebration on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Not only is the work of King honored, but citizens of Oktibbeha County who have contributed to civil rights and unity are as well. Because of pandemic restrictions, a public ceremony isn’t possible, but two late Starkville citizens are being honored and their names added to a permanent plaque – George W. Evans (1899-1980) and Fenton Peters (1935-2014).
Evans was well known as an entrepreneur, civic leader, businessman and boy scout organizer, shared Jeanne Marszalek of the Unity Park Committee. After attending Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, he later organized the first local African-American Boy Scout troop and spent much of his life encouraging young men to be disciplined and to develop a strong work ethic.
Peters is remembered for his work in education, first as a teacher and then administrator, helping lead Oktibbeha County schools through integration. He also served as choir director of his church choir and served on the Starkville Symphony Board, the Oktibbeha County Hospital Medical Center Board of Trustees and the Cadence Bank Board. He committed himself to service to his county.
“These people are honored because they have made a big difference to this community,” said Marszalek. “They spent their lives trying to help other people have better lives and achieve their potential.”
Now more than ever
While the pandemic may alter plans for MLK Day 2021, it also makes it more imperative than ever to ask, as King did, what are we doing for others, Gray expressed.
“The populations we try to serve in outreach projects are still there, no matter what, and this has only deepened that need,” she said. “COVID doesn’t give us a reason not to do anything for our community; it’s a reason to do it more.”