Last Updated: Mar 31st, 2014 - 14:20:42


Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday, lasting legacy
By Caitlin Davis, Senior Staff Writer
Jan 17, 2013, 12:47

photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Dr. Bernard Lafayette knew King, and spent the morning of King’s death working with him. Lafayette was the special guest speaker at a pre-birthday celebration for the civil rights icon, held on Sunday.

At a small, country church on Sunday, the strains of a happy birthday song filled the air. The song was being sung to the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, whose birthday was Jan. 15.

At Loving Union Baptist Church in Disputanta, the Prince George Regional Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, a civil rights organization King helped form and led in its early stages, arranged the annual pre-birthday celebration for King.

Amongst those joining in the celebration was Rev. Bernard Lafayette. Even though 45 years have passed, Lafayette can still recall his last birthday celebration with King, a party he helped organize.

“It was a surprise birthday party,” Lafayette explained. “He didn’t know, he thought it was a staff meeting, even though we did have a staff meeting, but it was a surprise party and what happened after the meeting was over, we brought out his cake and everything.”

Lafayette has a long standing history in the civil rights movement and with the late Dr. King. He co-founded the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1960. He was appointed as the National Coordinator of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign in 1969 by King. He also directed the Alabama Voter Registration Project in 1962.

As part of that national movement, Lafayette endured arrests and beatings, just as King and others.

Currently, Lafayette is the Chairman for the SCLC National Board of Directors and Chairperson for the International Non-Violence Executive Planning Board.

Though Lafayette can recall the days of joy with King, he also remembers the tragic day King was shot on the balcony of his hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.

Lafayette saw King just five hours before the assassination. The two were working on a press release together. In five hours, Lafayette lost a person who he said taught him how to lead a life of non-violence and a life filled with faith.

“The last morning, we were together. And after he tweaked the press release, he said...‘Bernard the next movement we’re going to have is going to institutionalize and to internalize non violence,” Lafayette remembered.

They said their goodbyes, and Lafayette caught a plane to Washington, D.C. When he stepped off the plan, he passed a telephone booth where a reporter from Associated Press and United Press International were stationed. The reporter from UPI was crying, and Lafayette knew King had been shot.

“I haven’t had time to grieve, by the way,” Lafayette said, remember the work that had to take place to push King’s message forward after his death. “We had to do a funeral, the Poor People’s Campaign, and I had get back into school so I could learn how to institutionalize and to internalize non-violence,” Lafayette said.

Even though King died on April, 4, 1968, the dreams he held did not die with him. Lafayette said that he made sure to hold on tight to them.

“They didn’t kill him because they wanted him to die, they were trying to kill his movement,” Lafayette said. “They were trying to kill his dreams, but guess what? I caught his dream before he died, so they missed.”

It is a dream many have caught and held, including the attendees at Sunday’s celebration.
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Rev. Sylvia Tucker presented the President’s Award to Deacon Ellen Jones, a 95-year-old member of Morning Star Baptist Church. Jones was applauded by all present.

“I have learned we cannot take a text out of context in the pretext,” Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Reid, Pastor of First Baptist Church of Disputanta said. “This man had a message that stressed equality...We are privileged tonight as we not only celebrate his life but celebrate his legacy. I encourage you to not only attend to his methods, but also to his message.”

Bill Gandel, vice-chair of the Prince George County Board of Supervisors, said King still inspires him. He said King was a legendary political leader who left and indelible legacy that is still strong, 45 years after his death.

“He embodies what America could become,” Gandel said. “...I will remind you, if you want Prince George, this state and this country to embody fully what Dr. King wanted and saw as a vision for us, I give you 10 two letter words...if it is to be it is up to me.”

That change that King wanted to see in the world is there, Mary Ruffin, President of the Prince George Chapter of the NAACP, said at the pre-birthday celebration.

“I only want to say that Rosa Parks sat and inspired us with her energy and Martin Luther King Jr. walked and encouraged us to act and President Barack Obama ran and showed us what is possible,” Ruffin said.

Dia Nichols, CEO of John Randolph Medical Center said he credits King with all his success.

“When I look at my personal career and the steps I’ve made, I know that it’s because of God first. I know it’s because of the struggles of Dr. Martin Luther King and everybody that fought before me,” Nichols said. “And when I look at where I am in my career, and the fact that as CEO, I know that that’s all about Dr. Martin Luther King and the struggles that he had.”

Nichols said that JRMC has been named, for the second year in a row, to the Joint Commission Top Performer List, a list that only includes 160 hospitals in the country. JRMC is the only Richmond area hospital on the list, Nichols said. The hospital has also played a role in the community, giving over $100,000 to charities in 2012. With a $40 million payroll and $40 million in uncompensated care, Nichols said the hospital offers an $87 million community benefit.

Nichols continued that tradition with a $4,000 donation to the SCLC. Rev. Dr. Sylvia Tucker, President of the Prince George Regional SCLC, accepted the check and embraced Nicholas as she gave her thanks.

Lafayette spoke about the spirit of thanks on Sunday. The spirit of thanks and praise and above all, love, even love for enemies.

“Family and friends, do you know how the movement got moving?” Lafayette asked. “We prayed for our enemies. We did good for those who despitefully used us. That’s the power of love.”

Lafayette said there are lessons to be learned from King and his legacy of non-violent resistance for society as a whole and for individual people.
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson The Lebanon Baptist Male Chorus and guitar and drum players provided music.

“Now, in closing, I want to say what I learned from Martin Luther King is that you don’t allow negative people to rent space in your mind,” Lafayette said. “...Next, I learned from Martin Luther King you’ve got to have faith. You can’t accomplish these things in life unless you have faith, and you know why? Because there’s so much opposition. What it means is, you got some folks out there who are against you and you need to be aware of them. Don’t get preoccupied with them. But I learned from Martin Luther King is that non-violence is not just for social change it is for interpersonal change.”

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