ALBANY — The unseasonably cold weather that’s gripped Southwest Georgia did not put a damper on the 38th annual King Day Breakfast early Monday morning.
The sanctuary of Mount Zion Baptist Church was packed with celebrants who came out to participate in the annual King Day Program and Commemorative Breakfast, which is organized by the local HEART Organization and sponsored by Procter & Gamble.
Local attorney and keynote speaker, Leisa Johnson gave a history lesson with lesser-known details about the the life and death of Martin Luther King Jr. She also presented an in-depth timeline of events that led up to and marked the civil rights movement.
She noted an important Supreme Court decision in the mid-1800s, which stated that black people were not to be considered citizens but rather property owned by whites. She went on to cite case after case of instances where injustices and civil rights were still being violated long after slavery in America ended.
She brought that notion home to Albany and Southwest Georgia by talking about black prisoners forced to work on local farms. She called it a “system of oppression” that eventually led to the civil rights uprising of the 1960s.
Johnson apologized in advance for those who expected a “sweet sermon” instead of a factual account of black history.
“I am a lawyer not a preacher,” she said. “I am accustomed to doing my research and making a case.”
The history lesson led up to King’s role as a civil rights leader and Johnson’s detailed account of the difficulties he endured, from a 1956 church bombing to getting stabbed during a book-signing in Harlem.
Johnson also spoke of King’s presence in Albany and his message everywhere he went — a message which, she said, encouraged, inspired and challenged his listeners to respond to the hatred and violence, not with bitterness and anger, but with love.
“Dr. King told the people of Albany to straighten their backs,” Johnson said. “At that time, blacks were not allowed to stand tall and look a white person in the face. They looked at the ground in Southwest Georgia and in Albany as well.”
Johnson spoke of several atrocities that happened in and around Albany prior to the civil rights movement. She spoke of the lynching of a pregnant woman, of blacks who were trying to leave town but instead kept being arrested for petty crimes at the old train station. She spoke of students joining the Albany Movement and a past Albany State president who, she said, lost his job because of his support of the movement.
She fast-forwarded to the day King was assassinated and gave her best play-by-play analysis of the situation, concluding that it was a set-up.
“I just hope it won’t take another 50 years for the records to be declassified,” Johnson said.
She talked about second chances and living out King’s legacy by showing love and helping others. Johnson has recently published a book called “Grace Horse,” which tells the story of a young Albany teenager who was sentenced to prison for his role in a murder. Johnson has taken that boy (now grown) under her wing and considers him her son.
“I just did for him what others have done for me,” she said. “When I needed help, God sent somebody for me. Dr. King was an apostle of love, redemption and of reconciliation.”
According to Johnson, the biggest challenge to the next generation and to all who want to carry on King’s legacy is to “eradicate hatred.”
“Hatred is the source of most ills in our society,” she said. “Dr. King may have been known for his walks and his speeches, but he also worked on laws and policies that helped put an end to inequality and injustice.”
The King Day choir, under the director of the Rev. Nathan Paige, sang old hymns, spirituals, Civil Rights-era freedom songs and an upbeat praise and worship number during the presentation.
Before the full sanctuary was dismissed for breakfast, HEART Organization founder Mary Thomas, volunteer Kenneth Florence and Executive Director Anne Johnson gave out awards to businesses, organizations and individuals who best exemplified King’s legacy.