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For Black leaders in Kansas City, MLK Day is a Hectic — and Empowering — Day of Service Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a day off for many people in Kansas City. But for leaders in Black communities, it's a chance to connect to something bigger and encourage better support for African Americans.

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Above image credit: Martin Luther Jr. stands at a pulpit, with a light shining behind him. Jr. was a speaker at the Mammoth Rally on May 3 in the late 1950s. (Library of Congress)
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5 minute read

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Rev. Vernon Howard Jr. always starts work early and ends work late.

“The work really is year-round because of the magnitude of the events that we make an effort to put on,” said Howard, a prominent Black leader in Kansas City who has been involved in local civil rights struggles for more than three decades.

His list of events is long. Like many Black community leaders in Kansas City, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is anything but a day off for Howard. Given the current plight of Kansas City’s Black residents, he said, it’s an obligation to work.

“I serve others on this day because I am the beneficiary of persons who shed blood for my right to be free,” said Howard, pastor of St. Mark’s Church and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, part of a national organization founded by King, Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin and other civil rights leaders in 1957.

Howard was the keynote speaker for a Kansas City Public Schools luncheon last week in King’s honor. He contributed to radio broadcasts on the SCLC’s airwaves and on Kansas City’s independent community radio station, KKFI. On Monday, he’ll make an appearance at the Northland’s 40th Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, and the SCLC-GKC’s flagship celebration, the MLK Community Forum and Mass Celebration. This year’s theme is “Reparations Now.”

“We have a moral duty in this regard,” he said. “And, as Dr. King said: ‘The time is always right to do what is right.’”

In the lead up to the national birthday commemorations, Howard and his team dedicate between five and 10 hours a week getting ready.

“The quest for racial and social justice is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” he said, and it continues today.

The Rev. Vernon Howard Jr. gives his keynote address at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day luncheon at the Kansas City Public Schools headquarters on Thursday, Jan. 11.
The Rev. Vernon Howard Jr. gives his keynote address at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day luncheon at the Kansas City Public Schools headquarters on Thursday, Jan. 11. (Lawrence Brooks IV | KCUR 89.3)

Howard’s activism and advocacy are aimed at addressing the inequities African Americans and other marginalized people experience in public education, economic divestment, and voting rights — some of the same issues King grappled with in his time.

High on Howard’s list of priorities for Kansas City is a way to make amends for the city’s role in historic slavery and racial discrimination. But a commission created by City Hall in 2023 has yet to receive the funding it needs to do its work.

“We’re advocating for reparations for Black people,” he said, citing a poverty rate among Black people in Kansas City “that is just absolutely atrocious.”

“Black people are suffering from a lack of economic access and economic development and entrepreneurship, particularly on the east side,” Howard said.

While he urges city leaders to fund the Mayor’s Commission on Reparations, Howard has also been working to engage a diverse set of organizations in his King Day plans.

“In the last couple of weeks there’s been more activity from both a business and a community organizing standpoint,” he said, “because we wed the celebration of Dr. King’s birthday and life with activism and advocacy that Dr. King would be doing, were he here.”

“The legacy he leaves shows us that standing for principles of truth, love, peace, nonviolence, and equal justice for all are worth fighting for, and will prove victorious. They killed the dreamer but they can’t kill the dream,” Howard said.

‘A Relearning of What We Thought We Knew’

Rodney Smith also worries about attacks on public education, freedom of speech and further attempts by lawmakers to make it harder to vote.

“We need to be fighting against any movement that attempts to further marginalize those who’ve been historically marginalized,” said the vice president of Access and Engagement at William Jewell College in Liberty.

Smith also is co-owner of the consulting firm Sophic Solutions, which specializes in diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. Smith has worked for years on Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations for William Jewel College and other entities.

“We need to be focused on that,” Smith said. “What we learn in our history books, and what we teach and what we don’t teach. It involves an unlearning, a relearning of what we thought we knew about our country.”

Rodney Smith
Rodney Smith’s work specializes in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, and he’s helped with the planning of many Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations for more than three decades. (Courtesy | William Jewell College)

Smith said he has taken part in Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations since it was first observed as a federal holiday, in 1986. Smith was a freshman that year at Morris Brown College, a historically Black university in Atlanta, Georgia.

“As an 18-year-old kid, I got the opportunity to interact with one of the giants of the civil rights movement, Hosea Williams,” a close associate of King’s, he said with a smile. “I remember him as Uncle Hosea.”

Williams led the historic “Bloody Sunday” march on Selma, Alabama, in 1965 with former U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

“I sang in the concert choir in college, so it was very frequent that we would sing at church,” Smith said, “and we got an opportunity to develop a relationship with Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery,” the first vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The modern holiday efforts give emerging Black leaders in Kansas City a similar chance to engage and serve their communities.

22-year-old D’asya Collier-Williams is a multimedia creative director for the AdHoc Group Against Crime, and has been working to relaunch the SCLC-GKC’s youth division, the Mountain Movers. 2024 is her second year planning and working the group’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day events.

“I feel like it’s very empowering and impactful, and I feel like it’s a blessing to have a leader such as MLK, as well as continuing to do the work,” she said. “I love knowing about it and just being more informed about different things that I may have (not) known learning about Black history, especially being a young person.”

D’asya Collier-Williams
D’asya Collier-Williams works on the youth leadership cabinet of Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City and with one of Kansas City’s oldest anti-crime organizations, AdHoc. (Eddy Burrett | AdHoc Group Against Crime)

Collier-Williams’ work with AdHoc sometimes involves interviewing and producing social media videos with the families of murder victims whose cases are unsolved. She says this small deed helps families feel heard, and gives them hope.

“People still want to know that somebody wants to help them, somebody still wants (to solve) their case,” she said. “They also want to know that they’re not fighting alone.”

If Smith’s experiences are any indication, the work of young leaders like Collier-Williams will shape the rest of their lives and careers.

“I think it has a direct correlation,” Smith said. “Most of my own personal research and my doctoral degree, I did a lot of reading and research relative to race and racism in our society.”

“I give a lot of credit to those foundational, formative years,” he said.

Lawrence Brooks IV is race and culture reporter for KCUR 89.3, where this story first appeared. KCUR is a member of the KC Media Collective.

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