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Clayton County residents celebrate life of King

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

More than half a century ago, an Atlanta preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr., became the leader of the American Civil Rights Movement, which eventually led to the end of many segregationist policies that had been in place since the nation's founding.

Despite rainy conditions, Clayton County residents spent the weekend observing King's legacy and reflecting on the ideals of racial unity, service, and non-violence.

Early Saturday morning at Fort Gillem's Getaway Club in Forest Park, about 200 people attended the 19th Annual Clayton County Martin Luther King, Jr. Prayer Breakfast. The event, hosted by the Concerned Black Citizens Coalition of Clayton County, brought together elected officials, pastors, and civic leaders, who offered prayers for the victims of the recent Haitian earthquake and urged attendees to remember the sacrifices of King and other civil rights leaders.

Former State Sen. Gail Davenport, the organization's president, said the breakfast "energizes the people to go out" and participate in service activities during the King holiday. "We just feel it is always good to pray and bring the community together," she said. "Dr. King was about service and we should honor him by serving others."

U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) served as the keynote speaker for the event. Forest Park Mayor Corine Deyton, Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley, and several members of the Clayton County clergy offered greetings and prayers.

In his speech, Scott compared the life of King to the trials of Jesus Christ and encouraged breakfast attendees to acquire "the Martin Luther King, Jr., instinct." He asked attendees to draw from King's courage and take a more active stance against gangs and other local problems.

"Martin Luther King, Jr., was God's child," Scott said. "He pointed the way for us. Jesus was the same way. The last scripture that Martin Luther King read ... rings true today as it did then. 'Love thy neighbor as thyself.'"

"What impressed me about him [King] is that he was a man who wanted people to work together," Deyton said. "It is just a sad, sad thing that we lost him so early in life, because we could have really used his leadership. It is important that we never forget him."

In Riverdale, the 10th Annual Clayton County Martin Luther King, Jr. Parade took place on Saturday around 10 a.m. A Jonesboro tradition for the last nine years, normally taking place on the King holiday, the parade was held in Riverdale for the first time this year, two days prior to the holiday.

The parade, which lasted an hour and a half, included 61 entries and more than 600 participants, according to Herman Turner, the event's organizer.

"Everything went without a hitch," Turner said. "The attendance was not as much as it has been ... with all the changes in places and time." "[However,] the rain held out until we were finished. We couldn't have asked for anything better."

On Sunday afternoon, the county's spiritual and political leaders gathered at Dixon Grove Baptist Church in Jonesboro for the 25th Annual Clayton County Ecumenical Service, in honor of King. The service, also hosted by the Concerned Black Citizens Coalition of Clayton County, was established to celebrate the establishment of the federal King holiday, Davenport said.

"Twenty-five years ago, no government offices were closed on that day ... no schools were closed on that day 25 years ago," she said. "That's why we are here today. He [King] preached, but he went beyond the four walls of the church. Dr. King gave black people and poor people a new sense of dignity. We are here on this holiday celebrating this mountain of a man, because he served."

The keynote sermon at this year's ecumenical service was delivered by Richard D. Winn, Sr., senior pastor at Ben Hill United Methodist Church in Atlanta.

Winn compared King's sermons to those of John the Baptist and said both men forced people to take a stand on the important issues of the day.

"His [John the Baptist's] entrance to the scene was like an explosion," he said. "John was to prepare the way for Jesus. Martin Luther King was to prepare the way for social justice. In the wake of Afghanistan and al-Qaeda, people need to be reminded all the more of the need for non-violence and peace."

During the service, members of Clayton County's clergy read a litany in commemoration of King, local students recited excerpts from King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and the congregation held hands while singing "We Shall Overcome," the anthem of the civil rights movement.

At the end of the service, ushers took up a donation for victims of the recent earthquake in Haiti.

Riverdale Evelyn Wynn-Dixon, who attended the Sunday service, said it gave residents, unable to travel to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta for its annual tribute service to King, a chance to celebrate King's life, locally.

"They do something in the north area in Atlanta," Wynn-Dixon said. "This will address the needs of people in the south area, below the airport. It's so easy to forget, and get complacent. This is reminding us of what true freedom is, and remembering one of the key individuals that got us to where we need to be."