State residents mark MLK Day with events, service

Published 6:47 pm Monday, January 19, 2009

BIRMINGHAM — More than 2,000 people showed up Monday at a unity breakfast to honor Martin Luther King Jr. and look forward to the inauguration of Barack Obama as president. Hundreds more joined in parades and marches.

Rodney Dale celebrated the King holiday in a different way, with hair clippers. He cut Norman Hatley’s hair at a church that caters to the homeless, painstakingly trimming around Hatley’s ears and dusting him off with powder as a finishing touch.

“It’s giving back. It’s all about giving back,” said Dale, speaking loudly over worship music blaring in another room at the Church of the Reconciler.

Hatley, who is black, just smiled at the thought of having a president who looks like him by lunchtime on Tuesday.

“It’s going to be a holiday, too,” he said.

Blacks joined whites and the rich joined the poor across Alabama to mark the King holiday on the eve of Obama’s inauguration as the nation’s first African American president. Comparisons between the two men were a constant refrain, with some seeing Obama as part of King’s dream of racial equality come true.

“He has fulfilled a lot of the things Dr. King spoke about,” said Reginald Johnson, who sold $25 plaques featuring images of King and Obama at an annual breakfast in Birmingham sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

As many as 2,400 people attended the event, hearing speakers and seeing a video with grainy, black-and-white footage from King’s years in the spotlight. The program featured side-by-side photographs of King and Obama.

“Martin Luther King did a lot of change, and now that Obama is coming into office he can continue Dr. King’s dream,” said volunteer usher Aujah Williams, 16, of Bessemer.

Other large King day events were held in Huntsville and Leeds, where hundreds of people attended breakfasts; and Montgomery, where more than 1,500 people marched past King’s first church, the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, and on to the Capitol steps.

March organizer Alvin Holmes, a state representative from Montgomery, said it was fitting the crowd stopped where King gave a speech at the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March in 1965. That march led Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, which opened Southern polling places to millions of black voters and ended all-white government.

“You wouldn’t have a black man elected president if it weren’t for Martin Luther King,” said Holmes, who wore a baseball cap that showed pictures of King and Obama and read “I Have A Dream — Fulfilled.”

The annual march drew the largest crowd since the first holiday observance in 1986, with many families attending.

Mary Helen Ingram of Montgomery, who brought her 8-year-old grandson Isaiah, said the juxtaposition of the King holiday with the inauguration caused families to bring youngsters.

“It’s more emotional this year with our new president,” she said. “You want the children to have an appreciation of the sacrifices — the blood sacrifices — that were made.”

At a breakfast for the homeless in Birmingham, 52-year-old Donald Lee sat in a church pew as he read a newspaper with Obama’s photo on the front page beside a story about the King holiday.

Work is scarce and the economy is bad, Lee said, yet a brighter future could be ahead. But neither Obama, nor any other president, can do much on his own, Lee said.

“He’s just an idol. It’s how you raise your children that matters,” he said.