By Eileen Bailey
WEST POINT – Erika Bell, 7, excitedly waited for the Unity March to make its way to where she and her aunt, Connie Smith of West Point, were standing.
“I’m excited,” Bell said as she peered down Main Street in West Point looking for the marchers who had gathered to commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King. Bell was taking part in the march for the first time. The march was no less exciting for Smith and her friend Franklin Cockrell, who have taken part in it before.
“We want to march in honor of Martin Luther King and for what he stood for,” Cockrell said. The march was sponsored by the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Committee.
King’s birthday, Jan. 15, is a federal and state holiday set aside to honor the civil rights leader who was assassinated in Memphis at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968.
Smith said each year she takes a personal day off from work to take part in the march. Because the march is important to her, she wanted her niece to experience the same sense of pride. “I think it is very important so she can know more about Martin Luther King,” Smith said. “If she does it I think it (the experience and information) will stay with her long after the march.”
Cloudy skies did not dampen the spirits of the about 400 residents who took part in the four-mile march that began on Martin Luther King Drive and made its way through town to Mary Holmes College. Some participants of the march sang as they made their way to the college while others carried banners. Parts of King’s speeches were played on a loud speaker in a car leading the marchers.
Anna Hayford-Jones, a member of the steering committee for the march, said this is the first time in several years that the weather has cooperated with the march.
As the march ended participants made their way to the Sage Gymnasium, where more than 500 people took part in the program. The guest speaker for the celebration was Fred Banks Jr. of Jackson, a Mississippi Supreme Court justice appointed in 1991. Before serving on the Supreme Court, he served as a Circuit Court judge in Hinds and Yazoo counties.
During his speech Banks said King wouldn’t want to be remembered for his Nobel Peace Prize or for his doctorate degree but rather for the work he did for all who are oppressed. King, he said, dedicated his life to others.
“Martin Luther King was an international hero. He was so dedicated, so steadfast and so forthright,” Banks said. “He was so totally committed to the cause that he gave his life for it.”
Banks said it’s not enough to celebrate King’s life one day out of the year but to celebrate it all year long and to remember King’s teachings that violence and racism are wrong.
Josephine Sykes, 85, said she enjoyed the program. “I think it’s great and it is an uplifting service,” Sykes said.
West Point was one of many towns in Northeast Mississippi and across the state and nation to celebrate King’s birthday with special observances Sunday and Monday. Some of the Northeast Mississippi towns that planned observances were Aberdeen, Booneville, Holly Springs, Okolona, Oxford, Ripley and Tupelo.