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Change seen in Hernando celebration of MLK Day

I enjoyed the gospel music at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration Monday at Kennedy Park.

I was proud to see Lorenzo Hamilton, the featured speaker and retired assistant principal at Central High, get credit for his role in helping integrate Hernando schools.

I was glad to see that his audience included white representatives of the School Board, County Commission and Brooksville City Council.

I was encouraged to hear the speech of Anton Southall, 12, and felt even more hopeful, interviewing him afterward, to hear him talk so knowledgeably about the historical significance of different eras' African-American leaders.

President-elect Obama will not overshadow King's reputation, Anton told me: "He enhances it, because he's following up on the legacy Dr. King left behind.''

Still, I wondered why I didn't see more children Anton's age honoring King's memory. And why I didn't see more attendees of all ages — I counted only about 150 — especially considering that the holiday fell on the eve of Obama's historic inauguration. And why more ordinary white residents hadn't taken a few hours from their day to honor King.

Finally, I wondered why the celebration wasn't held, as it was for more than 15 years, on the steps of the Hernando County Courthouse.

Nobody I talked to seemed to be as concerned about this as I was.

Wayman Boggs, president of the Hernando County Chapter of the NAACP, pointed out that Monday's celebration was preceded on Sunday by a church service at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church that drew a large, mixed-race audience.

Kennedy Park, on the edge of the mostly black neighborhood of south Brooksville, was the perfect venue for the music and food that was meant to attract young people. And Boggs said the NAACP made a point of making sure white residents were free to attend.

He's right, of course. There's no reason that staging this celebration at Kennedy Park should suggest it was an African-American rather than a countywide event. There was nothing about the location that should have prevented more white people from showing up.

But the comparative lack of diversity was only part of my concern.

Remember that King's message was about pure democracy, a reaffirmation of what this country is supposed to be all about: Everybody deserves a fair shake; no citizens should be denied opportunity; no one group of that citizenry should be arbitrarily beaten down.

It's a message that not only deserves to be heard as widely as possible, which it was when the King celebration included a parade up Main Street, but it also deserves the official approval of our local governments, which the courthouse celebration symbolized.

Why was this tradition lost? Well, as the cost of liability insurance rose, local governments were less willing to waive the expense, said former Hernando NAACP president Andy Williams, and the organization had a hard time raising the money.

"You have to remember, we're a nonprofit organization,'' he said.

The parade was first canceled for this reason in 2005, when the cost of insuring it would have been $1,200; it was held in 2006, but not in the three years since.

To me, it sounds like a problem the city, county and NAACP could solve if they all worked together.

Are there other reasons? Maybe a dimming enthusiasm for the holiday, which is unfortunate but natural.

As holidays age, and King Day was first celebrated in Hernando County 20 years ago, the observance always strays from their inspiration; look at how many people spend Memorial Day at the beach rather than the cemetery.

Maybe, as community activist Richard Howell told me last week, interest waned and attendance dropped because black residents had only one hero to celebrate and not much real proof that his vision was any closer to being realized.

As Anton reminded me, that has decisively changed with Obama's election.

You want more examples of change? Remember that city and county leaders tacitly approved of, and maybe participated in, the rash of lynchings in Hernando County in the 1920s. Remember, they wrote segregation into the zoning laws of the city of Brooksville.

Remember, the city didn't officially adopt a holiday for King until July 1988, and to make room for it on the calendar, it did away with Confederate Memorial Day.

Though belated, that was a historic choice in itself, to honor a legacy of liberation rather than slavery. Returning the King Day celebration to the courthouse steps would say, simply and profoundly, that we stand by that decision.

Change seen in Hernando celebration of MLK Day 01/19/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 19, 2009 7:56pm]
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