In past years, it was common for a large number of people to turn out to mark the annual observance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’ s birthday, Blanding Watson recalled on Wednesday.
“We’d get good crowds,” said Watson, president of the NAACP’s Lancaster branch, before turning his attention to the present, specifically how the COVID-19 pandemic has eliminated the possibility for large gatherings.
“It’s killing people,” Watson bluntly said about the virus. “So we had to transition to doing things online this year, doing things virtually.”
Watson was speaking about an event called Lancaster’s 2021 Celebration of the Life of Martin Luther King, a commemoration scheduled to be live-streamed online at 6 p.m. Sunday.
It’s not the only annual event to go digital in 2021. On Monday, an annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast fundraiser hosted by officials at the Crispus Attucks Community Center also will be held online.
“It breaks our heart that we cannot be in person this year,” said Kristy Aurand, chief development officer at the local Community Action Partnership, the center’s parent organization. “But it’s really going to have all of the same elements that people are familiar with.”
For the NAACP event, Watson said the same, stressing that the message of togetherness and inclusivity hasn’t changed.
“We just want everyone to be civil so that we can find solutions that are going to make our country better and so that people of color are treated equally," Watson said.
This year, organizers hope to promote that message through a theme of economic justice, Watson said, noting the inspiration echoes King’s campaign for both civil rights and economic justice.
Race-related barriers to accessing jobs, decent wages, affordable housing, small business loans and health insurance all are economic problems that persist within Black communities, both locally and across the country, Watson said.
That’s on top of what Watson described as the unfair treatment of Black people by law enforcement and others within the criminal justice system. The resulting frustrations led to protests — in Lancaster County and nationally — last summer following the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in Minneapolis.
“We are done dying,” Watson said, repeating the name of an NAACP campaign. “That’s why you see these demonstrations and protests. People are tired.”
Though the summer’s protests and unrest likely remain on many people’s minds, messages of equity and inclusivity, like the ones planned for Sunday, are always important, according to Bishop Dwayne Royster, a Philadelphia- and faith-based leader in advocating for racial justice. Royster is scheduled to speak at the NAACP’s Sunday event.
Royster said COVID-19 has highlighted existing divisions, including minorities’ limited access to health care.
“This is part of the economic challenge,” the clergyman said. “This COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated that we don’t have a whole country. … Now that we know that it's broken, we can try to fix it.”
How to attend
Those interested in tuning into the NAACP event will be able to find the live stream on The Cultured Professional Network’s Facebook page, organizers said. Prospective attendees also can register for the event through Zoom at bit.ly/3nO0CYk.
It’s free to attend, but donations can be made at bit.ly/2LuWEXB.
Watson said the commemoration is seen more as an educational event than a fundraiser.
Separately, the annual Martin Luther King Day breakfast at the Crispus Attucks Community Center, scheduled to be streamed online from 9 to 10 a.m. on Monday, still includes a fee, Aurand said. She explained that the event tickets and related donations make up about a third of the center’s yearly budget.
Tickets can be purchased until the end of the day today at caplanc.org/MLK/.
For that price, ticket buyers will be able to view performances, hear from organization officials and watch as community members are presented with awards, she said.
They’ll also hear from speaker Heather McGhee, “a distinguished senior fellow at Demos, a public policy think tank devoted to creating a democracy and economy rooted in racial equity,” according to an event news release.
The theme of this year’s event, Aurand said, is Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? — also the name of King’s last published book.
It’s an apt choice, following the summertime protests, ongoing pandemic and recent political turmoil, said Vanessa Philbert, Community Action Partnership’s CEO.
“Really, 2020, and even here in the beginning of 2021, has presented some stark realities that many Black and brown people have lived with all of their lives,” she said.
Hopefully, she said, discussions about working toward racial justice, will help lead to positive change.
“There has always been so much value in coming together as a community,” Philbert said.