This year, the campus of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, will be eerily empty on Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Gone will be the children and families enjoying the day’s activities –as many as 12,000 visitors on a good-weather day – and the crowds donating food or giving blood.
“With the pandemic, it’s hard to do that,” said Faith Morris, chief marketing and external affairs officer for the museum, which is marking the holiday online. “We will try to give those feelings virtually, but it’s not lost on us that it does in some form take away from the sentiment of the movement.”
Across the nation, scores of marches, parades and other events held to mark the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. have been canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic that has especially devastated Black Americans. Many events have moved online, offered virtually through Zoom or other apps – but organizers hope public enthusiasm will remain high given the extra resonance that the holiday carries in a time of continuing social unrest.
Martin Lurther King Jr. Day, held on the third Monday of January, arrives this year after months of Black Lives Matter civil rights protests following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and a recession that has disproportionately hurt Black Americans. It also follows a Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump, including many white nationalists trying to discredit the votes of Black Americans who backed President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who will be the nation’s first Black and first Asian vice president.
“You can’t help but make the parallels between what Dr. King was fighting for and all that we’ve been dealing with now,” Morris said. “Back then it all had to do with the ballot, the vote, and being called fake and void – and sadly, not a whole lot has changed.”
Biden, who was overwhelmingly backed by Black voters, is scheduled to be sworn into office Wednesday.
“It is providential, even poetic, that not only is it taking place two days before what we believe will be a new era of the presidency but also on the heels of one of the ugliest episodes in American politics,” said senior pastor Frederick Haynes III of Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas. “To me, that signals that if we can take an honest, fresh look at Dr. King, that this is an opportunity to create community out of this time of chaos.”
Haynes was set to speak at a virtual candle-lighting ceremony marking the holiday in Dallas, which, like many cities, canceled its annual march in favor of virtual experiences, some with creative approaches: San Antonio, which hosts what is believed to be the nation’s largest annual march, commissioned a filmmaker to produce a history of the holiday; in Houston, home to the nation’s oldest MLK parade, organizers are hosting a “parade of giving” to help the city’s needy and broadcasting a virtual parade.
Some worry that a virtual experience might not prove as effective as the real thing.
In Las Vegas, where a popular parade has been canceled in favor of a virtual one, “people will have to be in front of their TV rather than watch the floats go by outside,” said longtime organizing committee member Alphonso Mason.
Such a prospect will be more palatable to older people, he guessed, than younger attendees who eagerly cheer on each year the drill teams, motorcycle clubs and undulating lowriders that stream by.
“COVID is serious,” Mason said, “so for the most part people do understand. Health and safety is foremost.”
Bates College, a liberal-arts college in Lewiston, Maine, annually observes the holiday with a day-long slate of workshops, panels and other activities; those, too, are all going virtual this year.
“One of the aspects I’ve loved about MLK Day is the energy, buzz and personal connections I’ve made with people I’d never meet otherwise,” said Michael Rocque, an associate sociology professor at the school who helps organize the event. “We can interact virtually, but it isn’t the same.”
As part of the day’s sessions, Rocque will moderate a public panel exploring the history and meaning of the holiday and whether it remains what it was meant to be – and not just a day for errand-running. The current climate and fight for racial justice, he said, “suggest that as of right now, it is more than that…. There’s a lot of healing that needs to be done.”
With its focus on race and civil rights, the holiday offers one way to do so, he said, “so I think there’s potential for really high engagement this year, despite the virtual nature of the day.”
FBI warns of armed protesters
Organizations in some cities, meanwhile, are moving forward with plans for in-person events – including a pair of annual marches in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle. The gatherings come after the FBI warned last week of possible armed protests in all 50 states, and experts have worried that domestic terrorists might turn their attention to state capitols.
So far, such worries have not consumed those organizing holiday events.
“White supremacists don’t usually show up to our protests unless they’re in trucks,” said Teressa Raiford, executive director and founder of Don’t Shoot PDX, a police watchdog group that is among those sponsoring Portland’s Reclaim MLK Annual March for Human Rights and Dignity. “We’ve learned to deescalate that by not engaging.”
But since the group has often been at odds with city leaders and law enforcement, “we’re always worried about our safety and what’s going to happen. So this year’s no different,” she said.
In Seattle, where an estimated 10,000 people attended the city’s annual march last year, organizers say they don’t expect numbers at the outdoor event to drop much. Health-safety protocols will be enforced and various organizations have contributed personal protective equipment, said Shaude’ Moore, chair of the Seattle MLK Jr. Organizing Coalition.
Moore said having to cancel other large events associated with the march, such as a job fair held at Seattle’s Garfield High, where King once spoke, was “disheartening.”
And while the group has not received any threats, she said, “that doesn’t mean we’re not cautious.” As an example, she said, this is the first year the group has not broadcast its planned route, a decision made in part to thwart would-be disrupters.
Some MLK Day events were canceled many months ago
Other organizers said they realized they would have to cancel any MLK events long before the U.S. Capitol attack.
In San Antonio, march organizers began anticipating the event’s possible cancellation in July, observing the anti-police brutality protests going on at the time and realizing the impossibility of socially-distancing a crowd that last year reached an estimated 100,000. Estimates of previous crowds have been triple that.
“We knew that two days before the inauguration, regardless of who won, that the march could have attracted up to half a million people,” said Renee Watson, who chairs the city’s MLK Commission.
Rather than do nothing, the group hired a filmmaker to bring the march to life with a 90-minute film to be broadcast locally and beyond on YouTube or via a cellphone app. The film features photos and videos submitted by previous march attendees, discussions of King’s legacy and tributes to frontline workers and first responders.
“So maybe Grandma can’t go out, but everyone can use the technology at the same time and talk about it,” Watson said. “And if they sent in photos, they might even see themselves in it.”
Meanwhile, for Houston’s Black Heritage Society, there was no doubt that something would take the place of its annual march once its in-person version – developed to mark the renaming of a local street as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard – was canceled for the first time in 43 years.
“We could not sit on our hands and prevent COVID or anything else from recognizing this great man,” said Sylvester Brown, the society’s executive director.
Instead, in addition to its drive-through “parade of giving” at which donors can drop off clothing and other items for the city’s needy, the society put together a virtual parade that will feature videos submitted by scheduled performers. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is serving as co-grand marshal.
Morris, of the civil rights museum, noted the contentious history behind the creation of the holiday, which was signed into federal law in 1983 and first celebrated in January 1986 after a Senate filibuster and the lasting image of New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan stomping on a 300-page document purporting to show King’s alleged Communist ties and calling it a “packet of filth.”
Similar proposals at state levels were met with various mixes of support and rejection, and it wasn’t until 2000, when South Carolina passed a bill making the day an official state holiday, that it became observed across the board nationwide.
“We fought so hard to make this a holiday and we need to make sure we don’t forget who this man was, and why we need to lift up his ideals and teachings,” Morris said. “We’ve got to keep on pressing forward. Not having it in person does not stop us from celebrating his life, and we will do it in a way that we think would make him proud.”