Two days before the nation observed the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., hundreds filled the streets of downtown Columbus Saturday to celebrate King’s legacy while a second group in Carver Heights marched through neighborhoods to stop the violence.
“We know the King legacy is as relevant today as it was over 50 years ago,” Mayor Teresa Tomlinson told a noon crowd standing in near freezing temperature outside the Government Center plaza.
A Stop the Violence Rally followed at 2 p.m. at Michael Fluellen Recreation Center on Eighth Street where hundreds marched to nearby street corners where young men died of street violence.
“All this senseless killing needs to stop,” said Cathy Fluellen, whose son was killed in a drive-by shooting. “Nobody needs to kill.”
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Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., and retired Marine Lt. Charles A. Person, one of the original Freedom Riders, were among a list of speakers and entertainers downtown.
Dees, who has crippled hate groups through the courts, said King would be concerned about a nation of prosperity and riches but millions do not have health care. She said President Barack Obama’s health care program is opposed by politicians who don’t want to share the wealth of this nation with the poorest people.
In immigration, Dees said King would also be leading the march to help those who contribute to the prosperity of this nation but don’t have the right to vote as citizens.
“In 1963, Dr. King led the poor people marching on Washington, D.C. He said in America, there are lonely islands of poverty in the great sea of opportunity,” Dees said. “Today, we find that people find neither justice nor opportunity. When Dr. King was among us, he had real concerns about this nation, real concerns about whether we would continue as a Democracy.”
Person, a Freedom Rider who marched with King and suffered many beatings, said the slain civil rights leader would not be pleased with people laying under the bridges.
“He would not be pleased to hear of people working a 40-hour week and not earning a living wage,” he said. “Homelessness and living in poverty is not the American dream.”
Person also said King wouldn’t understand how students graduate from college and face a burden with student loans that make it impossible to get ahead. He said it will take money and resources to resolve the problems.
“The money we spend is not a hand out, but an investment,” Person said. “When you give an investment, you expect a return on your investment.”
The event was sponsored by the Mayor’s Commission on Unity, Diversity and Prosperity.
Jimmy Habersham II of Columbus said the event was different from the annual parade but it was great.
“I’m happy the city did it,” he said.
If King were alive, Habersham said he would be pleased because race relations have improved.
“We are not where we should be but we are much better than we used to be,” he said.
During a Friday conversation with Bernice King, the daughter of King, state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, said she focused on a need to stop the violence.
“We must heed the words of Dr. King,” Smyre said. “The choice is no longer between violence and nonviolence but nonviolence and nonexistence. To attack someone or injure someone amounts to self injury. We have to change the culture. We have to change the mindset. We have to teach young people how to address conflict and anger.”
Two hours later and about three miles east of downtown, residents marched from the Fluellen Recreation Center to Coolidge Avenue and Seventh Street where David Scott was killed in September 2013. Scott’s sister, Shavon Tolbert, and other relatives prayed and released red and white balloons.
The group also stopped at Seventh Street and Lawyers Lane at the scene where Charles Willis was killed in April 2012 and Eighth Street and Rigdon Road where Michael Fluellen, 14, died on Mother’s Day in 1994.
At the end of the march, the group gathered in front of the center to share how losing loved ones impacted their lives.
Thelma Smith, the mother of Almanita L. Smith, said her 26-year-old daughter had just earned her master’s degree when a man killed her in South Carolina in August 2012. Her daughter had a bright future as an Army officer.
“When someone murders your child, a part of you dies along with them,” she said. “There were times when I alone wanted to kill my own self three different times because I miss my baby.”
In addition to the survivors of violent crimes, there was singing and proclamations.
Colin Martin, a candidate for mayor, was among the speakers. Tomlinson also marched with the group in the rally along with Columbus Councilors Jerry “Pops” Barnes, Evelyn “Mimi” Woodson and Bruce Huff.
An organizer said at least 600 people signed up for the event.
“It’s great,” Tolbert said. “It’s great the people came out.”