As the national holiday bearing his name approaches, Cape Girardeau is gearing up for a series of events to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Even now, nearly 40 years after his death, it's important to remember what King died for, said Debra Mitchell-Braxton, a key organizer for commemoration events.
"I just think it keeps us cognizant of the era in history that brought about a significant change in our country," said Mitchell-Braxton. "It really changed the character of our country by allowing equal access in all walks of life to all citizens."
The celebration is set to kick off at 7 p.m. Thursday, with the third annual Birthday Extravaganza at the Osage Community Centre. This event honors King's actual birthday, Jan. 15.
The extravaganza will be a fun, musical event, said Mitchell-Braxton, with several youth choirs and instrumental groups from local churches and schools delivering musical tributes.
The extravaganza is just a prelude to the bigger celebration on Jan. 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The first of those events will be the 20th annual Memorial Breakfast at 8 a.m. at the Show Me Center
Honoring the university community across the country for its involvement in the civil rights movement is the goal of the breakfast, Mitchell-Braxton said.
"Many college students across the nation participated in protests, sit-ins, helping with voter registration," she said.
The featured speaker at this year's breakfast will be the Rev. Earl Nance Jr., pastor of the Greater Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis.
His ties to the civil rights movement are deep. His father was a friend of King and his classmate at Morehouse College. The elder Nance also worked for King as a strategist in St. Louis. The younger Nance met King as a child when the civil rights leader visited his hometown.
"I had two encounters when I was 9 and 10 years old," Nance said. "He was a very humble man, a very powerful man.
"He said to me 'We're doing all this because we want to make sure that life is better for you.' That had a big impact on me."
The sacrifice King spoke of all those years ago is the message Nance wants to convey when he speaks at the breakfast.
The breakfast is open to the public, with tickets costing $7 for adults and $5 for children ages 6 to 12. They can be purchased until noon Tuesday at the Southeast Bookstore, the Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce or at the Show Me Center. Prepaid tickets will be available for area students, chaperones and low-income people.
Events that day will continue with the fourth annual Humanitarian Benefit, set for noon at the Osage Centre. The purpose of the luncheon is to honor King's legacy of charity and promote humanitarian action by members of the community.
Larry T. Barnett, pastor of St. John Praise and Worship Center in Pulaski, Ill., will be the featured speaker. Barnett was the first black principal at Sparta Lincoln Middle School in Sparta, Ill., and Lincoln Junior High in Carbondale, Ill.
The Dr. C. John Ritter Humanitarian Award will be presented at the luncheon. This year the award will recognize the United Way of Southeast Missouri, the late Dr. Melvin Gillespie Sr., Altha Robinson and Pamela Dumey. It's open to the public, but reservations must be made by Friday.
Organizers are asking participants to bring toiletries or a pair of new children's tennis shoes to be donated to local humanitarian agencies.
At 4 p.m., local youths will get another chance to show their appreciation for King at the ninth annual Youth Gala, to be held in Westfield Shoppingtown West Park near J.C. Penney.
Performers will provide musical and oratorical tributes to King in a 30- to 45-minute program.
The day will wrap up at 7 p.m. with the 15th annual Gospel Extravaganza at Cape First Church. The extravaganza is planned as a musical celebration of King's spirituality.
"Certainly we're all familiar with Dr. King's work as a civil rights activist, both nationally and internationally," said the Rev. David Allen Sr., one of the event's organizers. "He was also a member of the clergy ... a man of deep religious conviction."
The featured performer will be Dr. Fairest Hill of Tampa, Fla., with other performances by Sikeston, Mo., native Neal Boyd and the Cape First Freedom Rock Group.
The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Service Award will also be given out at this event. It's awarded every year to individuals, schools, agencies or groups who continue to carry on King's legacy of charity. Nominations can be made until Thursday.
Other events include the second annual "Passing the Torch of Unity" at the University Center Ballroom on the campus of Southeast Missouri State University on Jan. 27 and the second annual Artistic Expressions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream at the ballroom on Feb. 3.
For more information, call Mitchell-Braxton at 651-5186.
335-6611, extension 182