GREEN COVE SPRINGS – City and church officials promoted unity at Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations Monday with fiery speeches, songs and a cello performance. The weather was frigid, but about 40 people braved the cold at Vera Francis Hall Park.
Mayor Connie Butler read the city’s proclamation and Vice-Mayor Steven Kelley read a letter from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. Butler said it was important to honor King’s courage, leadership and dreams.
“The root word of community is unity,” Butler said. “We need to come together.”
Keynote Speaker, Rev. James Pernell, senior pastor of Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, said the inspiration for King’s famed “I Have A Dream” speech originated from nightmares the Civil Rights icon had when he surveyed the state of America’s racial tensions in 1968.
“When people are more divided than ever,” Pernell asked audience members, “would they choose chaos or community?”
“Does it really seem like a celebration when we still have to deal with inequality, injustice, racism, classism, sexism, ageism, homelessness, dehumanization, desexualization, demoralization in a nation that prides itself on being the land of the free and the home of the brave?” Pernell asked.
Pernell, a recent arrival to Green Cove Springs, said the celebration was only as strong as people’s commitment to the ideas King lived, fought and died for. Pernell referred to America as a building with leaks and cracks, that needs justice for all rather than some. He criticized the current government shutdown, the profiling of minorities and President Donald Trump’s push for a border wall.
“(America must) stir the melting pot of humanity like gumbo and not be afraid to let other ethnicities flavor the pot,” Pernell said.
Pernell ended with reading King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He urged the audience to agree to disagree and look for what unites them rather than what separates them.
“Dr. King believed that if you sat down and talked to another person long enough you will find out you have more in common than differences. His mission was to unify the consciousness of America to the point of understanding it was living in chaos,” Pernell said. “When we don’t treat our people justly and fairly, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, we are living out of order.”
Attendee Emmitt Alexander said he was the first student to integrate Lake Butler’s Union County High School in the mid-1960s. He said King’s struggles inspired him to get an education and provide for his family.
“(King) paved the way for me. Today is a day a celebration to remember all the things he did,” Alexander said. “It’s about remembering what he stood for and what I stand for in my heart. Yes, we have come a mighty long way, but the dream has yet to be fulfilled.” Guest Procha Sweet helped her grandson, King Norton, 6, read an address to the crowd. Sweet said recognizing the accomplishments of her forebearers was a step forward and meant King’s dream was closer to coming true.
“(King’s) dream lives on because we’re teaching it to the next generation,” Sweet said. “And (her grandson) King is an example that his dream is living on.”