In anticipation of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Kansas lawmakers, civil rights advocates and other government officials spoke Thursday of unity among Kansans as a key to weathering challenging times and making positive progress as a state.

Gov. Laura Kelly pointed to the acts of selflessness and teamwork displayed over the COVID-19 pandemic, from front-line health care workers to teachers to spiritual leaders, to show how the principles King held remain prevalent in Kansas today. She said the state’s elected leaders must not only heed that same call to service but work to set an example for all others.

“We can all do more to make our communities better. We can all do more to make each other better,” Kelly said. “We can truly make a difference when we take Dr. King’s lead and choose to stand together in solidarity, mutual respect and commitment to making the world a better place.”

State legislators, members of the governor’s cabinet, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and members of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission were among those who joined Kelly in the annual march around the statehouse to honor King. Following the march, Kelly proclaimed Jan. 17, 2022, as Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Kansas. (King was born on Jan. 15, but the day is observed as a holiday on the third Monday in January because of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.)

Last year, the march took place online to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Stacey Knoell, executive director of the African American Affairs Commission, said King’s words and efforts still ring loud and true today, making the effort to continue his legacy paramount. While toned down or better hidden, many of the same issues of the 1960s remain, she said.

“Mark Twain said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Well today we’re living through a time that certainly rhymes with the turbulence of the 1960s,” Knoell said. “We’re still fighting voter suppression; we’re still fighting for fair redistricting and we’re still fighting for human rights and dignity.”

The greatest gift provided by King was hope, Knoell said, adding that hope remains inside of all who heed his words and follow his example.

Beryl New, chair of the African American Affairs Commission, asked Kansans to look inside themselves and ask questions of their thoughts, opinions and actions. Self-reflection will open a path to creating a better Kansas, she said.

“When we do all of these, Kansas, America, the world will be closer to the vision of the dream that Dr. King had when he looked forward to the day, all God’s children, Black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, can join hands and sing the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last,’ ” New said.

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