ALBANY — Church and community leaders are busy this week preparing for local events commemorating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., whose memory takes on added meaning in Albany.
In November 1961, residents of Albany launched an ambitious campaign to eliminate segregation. It was a movement that captured national attention one month later when local leaders invited King to join the protest. Despite the civil rights leader's involvement, the movement failed to secure concessions from
local officials. What the so-called Albany Movement did do, however, was go down in history as a formative learning experience for King and other civil rights organizers, and it was later credited with hastening the ultimate desegregation of Albany facilities.
Now, nearly 60 years later, King Day celebrations are credited with uniting people from all denominations, all neighborhoods and all walks of life. For the past 38 years, King Day festivities have begun with a breakfast sponsored by Procter & Gamble, hosted and coordinated by the H.E.A.R.T. organization and held at Mount Zion Baptist Church, located at 901 SW Westover Blvd.
This year, organizers say they are expecting anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 people to attend the free breakfast, which begins at 7:30 a.m. and continues for about three hours.
Anne Johnson, executive director of the H.E.A.R.T. organization, has been coordinating the event since its inception. She said several student groups from throughout the Dougherty County School System will help with ushering and seating. Active and retired employees from P&G, as well as some students from Terrell County, will also serve as event volunteers. The breakfast itself will be prepared and served by the Mt. Zion Culinary Arts Department.
In 1980, a group of concerned employees at the Procter & Gamble Paper Products Company in Albany combined their efforts at keeping King's dream alive by recognizing the need for the community to come together in true fellowship and love, Johnson said.
"They organized H.E.A.R.T., which stands for Hands Extended Across Reaching Together, to assist those who are in underprivileged and low-income situations within the community," she said.
H.E.A.R.T. held its first King Day Commemorative Breakfast at the Shoney's East restaurant in Albany in 1980. Soon after, due to an increase in the number of people desiring to attend the breakfast, Albany State College (now University) was chosen as the event site and remained so through 1988.
"Interest in the annual service increased within the Albany community to the point where an even larger and more appropriate place was needed to accommodate the breakfast," Johnson said. "In 1989, the breakfast was moved to the Mt. Zion Baptist Church Family Center, with continued sponsorship of the P&G Family."
Procter & Gamble became the corporate sponsor of the King Day Breakfast in 1989 and continues to be its sole sponsor.
A multidenominational 100-member choir made up of singers from throughout Southwest Georgia will perform at the King Day Breakfast this year. Local attorney Leisa Johnson will serve as keynote speaker for the event.
The H.E.A.R.T. Organization recently distributed more than 500 pairs of new athletic shoes to children attending Dougherty County Schools.
The Rev. Brian Ramey, who serves as pastor of Jordan Grove Baptist Church and Friendship Baptist Church, said he always attends the King Day Breakfast.
"Its a great way for the whole community to come together and commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. King and to look at the status of his dream in Albany today," Ramey said.
After breakfast, Ramey said he intends to participate in a march to the courthouse in Bainbridge.
A march also is expected to take place in Albany from Shilo Baptist Church to the old jailhouse where King and other protesters were housed after being arrested. That event is being organized by the Rev. Henry Mathis, a former Albany city commissioner and current associate pastor at Shiloh.
The 2018 King Day Walk is expected to follow the same path as in previous years: east to the Charles Sherrod Civil Rights Memorial Park; west to the city's Harlem district, site of the former Ritz Cultural Center and the bus station that was a key part of the Albany Movement; across Oglethorpe Boulevard to Pine Avenue and the site of the former jail where civil rights participants, including King, were held.
The old jail now is the site of the city/county Government Annex Building.
Frank Wilson, executive director of the Albany Civil Rights Institute, said the Albany King Day festivities have a powerful effect on the community and help the next generation to better understand the history and significance of King's effect on the community.
"There is some confusion about the role of the Civil Rights Institute when it comes to these events." Wilson said. "We are supporting the events, but they are put on by others — by church and community leaders throughout our community."
Ramey said he believes it is up to the next generations of millennials and even younger to bring King's dream to fruition. He said bits of that hope are manifesting through a variety of programs and incentives.
"When Dr. King came here, there was a lot of strife," the pastor said. "There was no unity, so there was not a lot he could do. There was no cohesive groundswell. What we are still seeing is a lack of unity, but we are also seeing some breakthroughs. Some olive branches are being held out to our young people."
Ramey said he views Albany as a "center point for a lot of social interaction." He points to programs like Leadership Albany, Strive2Thrive and a recently launched career academy through as ways to keep King's dream alive and well in Albany.
"Our young people have the greatest opportunity to change any negative belief system and to see that the American Dream is still within their reach," Ramey said. "I believe that is what Dr. King fought for. He fought for more than equal access to facilities. Dr. King fought for hope and equal access to the American Dream."
Another key event commemorating the life of King is an annual dinner that is planned for Jan. 22.
Local attorney Ken Hodges is one of the organizers of that event, which also celebrates local leaders who have demonstrated their adherence to King's beliefs and principles. Each year, Dream Awards are distributed during the event. On Friday, Hodges said details on the time and location of the King Day celebration have not been finalized. He did note that Judge Penny Brown Reynolds of Atlanta has been booked to serve as keynote speaker for the event.