Mount Zion Baptist Church, a place prominent in the Baton Rouge civil rights movement and a church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, held its annual celebration of the memory of King on Monday morning, with greetings from Mayor-President Kip Holden and a speech by special guest Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
The birthday of the slain civil rights leader was marked in many other ways in Baton Rouge, including an art installation, a leadership awards ceremony, candelight vigil and interracial dinner parties all over town.
The annual holiday has developed into a national Day of Service, and Baton Rouge did its part.
The local chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority organized one of the largest community service drives in town, attracting about 1,500 volunteers to Southern University who then spent the morning doing small projects at five schools, one community center and two private homes.
Dozens of other nonprofits and community groups filled Southern’s F.G. Clark Activity Center in hopes of persuading Monday’s volunteers to volunteer for other good causes.
The service at Mount Zion Baptist Church, which attracted about 200 participants, ended with a march from the church on East Boulevard down to the Mississippi River with a closing prayer at the Freedom Monument in Galvez Plaza, in front of City Hall.
Jennifer Fabre pulled her two sons, Braelyn, 6 and Aiden, 2, in a wagon down Government Street, trailing the Scotlandville High School marching band.
“Just trying to teach the boys what we had to struggle through,” said Fabre, who lives in Baton Rouge. “They have no conception.”
The older boy is starting to get it, though, she said.
“He knows who Dr. Martin Luther King was and that he fought for freedom,” she said.
The Baton Rouge chapter of the NAACP organizes this annual service and march. And each year it’s held at the church where the Rev. T.J. Jemison, who died in November, crafted the eight-day Baton Rouge bus boycott in June 1953, the model for the boycott that King made famous two years later in Montgomery, Ala.
Many of the marchers Monday wore T-shirts showing Jemison and King together.
One of Monday’s speakers, Martha White, helped spark the bus boycott. A domestic worker, she just couldn’t continue to stand while there were empty seats near the front of the bus, she recalled.
“I was so wore out, and I wanted that seat so bad, because I couldn’t sit down at my job,” she said.
When authorities threatened to arrest her for her act, she ended up getting the attention of the Rev. Jemison, who had been fighting Baton Rouge to enforce an ordinance that allowed for an “equitable” division of seats between white and black bus passengers anywhere on the bus.
“I didn’t know we could sit down from the front seat to the back seat,” she recalled. “They kept that a secret from us.”
Monday’s speakers tried to link past to present.
Holden said where the “atrocities” of the civil rights era were committed “white on black,” that’s no longer the case.
“Right now in Baton Rouge, the people committing the atrocities look like many of us in this room,” he said.
“Even if it’s our own children, we can’t hide them from law enforcement,” Holden added.
Councilman John Delgado said the racial progress of Baton Rouge is in danger of reversal, alluding to the effort to turn much of unincorporated East Baton Rouge Parish into the c ity of St. George, which would be more affluent and more white than Baton Rouge.
“They say our community is divided,” Delgado said. “I say we’re stronger together.”
Landrieu, who is running for re-election this year against Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, said there are more than 240,000 Louisianians who make too much to qualify for Medicaid and not enough for subsidies that would allow them to buy discounted insurance via the Affordable Care Act.
That would change if Gov. Bobby Jindal reversed himself and accepted federal money to expand Medicaid eligibility, she said.
“All our governor has to do is say one word, and it’s a short one: Y-E-S,” Landrieu said.
Landrieu also drew attention to growing inequality between rich and poor in the United States, something President Barack Obama highlighted in a recent speech.
“Dr. King would not have been happy, I promise you, if he came back and looked at those statistics today,” she said.
Throughout the Scotlandville area, adults and teenagers were trying to do their small part to help improve matters via service projects.
“They rolled up their sleeves,” said Doris Brown, president of the Delta Sigma Theta chapter, the lead organizer. “It wasn’t just a Kodak moment.”
Cassianna Garner, 15, and a student at Madison Preparatory Academy, a high school in Baton Rouge, ended up cleaning up trash at Crestworth Elementary.
She volunteers a lot as a member of the group Top Teens of America, to which she belongs, but was happily surprised to see other boys and girls she knows, not known for volunteering.
“I saw a lot of people from school, including people I would never expect to see out here,” Garner said.