Thursday marked four days from Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but the Rev. Dennis Laffoon was already preparing himself for the holiday. Laffoon spent the afternoon listening to King’s speeches to prepare himself for a sermon Sunday and service Monday, he said.
“The messages in his speeches are the same as the issues we’re facing today,” Laffoon said. “If you didn’t know it was the ‘60s, you could think he was speaking today.”
Bloomington has traditionally celebrated MLK Day by marking it as a day of service and encouraging people to take advantage of community volunteer opportunities.
The emphasis on service comes from a sermon King gave in 1968. From his pulpit at Ebenezar Baptist Church in Atlanta, King told his congregation, “Everyone can be great because everyone can serve.”
In that spirit, the city approved 31 organizations’ proposals requesting funding for service and educational events on MLK Day this year.
However, some community leaders say that a focus on service is not enough.
Jim Sims, president of the Monroe County NAACP chapter, said civil rights are the most important aspect of the day and of King’s legacy.
“It should all go and come back to civil rights,” Sims said. “Focusing only on services dilutes some of the conversation.”
Sims, 60, said he has always believed in the importance of civil rights, but the current political climate has renewed that concern for him.
“Civil rights is for everybody,” Sims said. “What’s good for me is good for you, and what’s bad for me is bad for you. We have to fight hard to make sure American civil rights aren’t stripped away.”
Sims said he encourages people to think about what’s really true within the United States.
“I think one of the ideas this country is allegedly based on is liberty and justice for all, but my rhetorical question to you is, ‘Do you really believe that?’” Sims said.
Laffoon said the United States’ struggle with racial problems is systemic and ongoing and has become more overt in recent months.
“I am 45, and this is the first time in my life that I have see such a racially divided nation,” Laffoon said. “MLK Day is four days before the swearing in of a president that for many will bring a season we hoped would never come.”
Sims’ and Laffoon’s concerns stem from observations of the political leadership of President-elect Donald Trump’s administration. In November Trump selected Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, as his choice for attorney general. Civil rights activists decried the move due to Sessions’ voting records.
According to Ballotopedia, Sessions voted against the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act in 2013 and against special funding for minority- and woman-owned businesses in 1998. National news sites, including the New York Times and fivethirtyeight.com have reported Sessions called the 1965 Voting Rights Act intrusive legislation.
“The other day I was just reading Coretta Scott King’s letter about (Sessions’) history of coming after civil rights leaders,” Laffoon said. “Here we are, 20 to 30 years later, and the past is repeating itself in such a way that we have to be vigilant.”
Laffoon and Sims are not the only leaders who have felt urgency and concern about the political climate. Yassmin Fashir, an IU sophomore and community educator in Wilkie Quad, said she believes MLK Day is a day to remember the fight.
“For me, MLK Day is a day where I feel like we can at least remember that what we’re fighting for is timeless and that it transcends generations,” Fashir said.
Fashir helped create “The Formation Exhibition,” an exhibit featuring photography from the civil rights era next to photos illustrating the same fight in present day among other displays.
“We’re doing this to show that the fight for black liberation is still going on today,” Fashir said. “What I see going on today is parallel to what happened during the civil rights movement.”
Fashir’s MLK Day activism began when she enrolled at IU. Culture shock prompted her to take action, she said.
“A lot of it was self-realization that I was black,” Fashir said. “Before, I didn’t realize what that meant.”
Dexter Griffin, a sophomore at Bloomington High School South, said he will serve on MLK Day for the twelfth consecutive year. His family introduced him to MLK Day service when he was three.
Griffin’s service extends well past MLK Day. Griffin was awarded the Commission on the Status of Black Males’ Outstanding Black Male Leader of Tomorrow Award in 2016.
While Griffin said he loves to serve the community, he also hopes for better times. He said he’d like to see more open-mindedness and integration within Bloomington beyond MLK Day.
“Some people here are really close-minded,” Griffin said. “Being a black man, I’ve seen some things. It’s hard to explain, but these things, in the black community, we’ve always seen it.”
Sims said even though the holiday is largely centered around service, he believes some people will walk away changed, perhaps through conversations they may have with people different than them.
“Conversation is what’s valuable,” Sims said.
One opportunity for consideration and conversation-starting will be Monday night in the Buskirk-Chumley Theater when Adam Foss will speak. Foss is an advocate for criminal justice reform and a former juvenile division assistant district attorney in Boston.
Foss said he is concerned with systemic injustice and will speak about how to combat inequity and mobilize communities to exercise their civil rights.
“Service is a good thing,” Foss said. “It should happen all the time. Sometimes I feel like doing service is a way that we make ourselves feel better about not having that really uncomfortable conversation that we should be having, especially right now.”
Despite their shared apprehension, all five people will serve the Bloomington and IU communities on MLK Day.
“I believe this is the way it is,” Sims said. “Only light can overcome dark, and only love can defeat hate.”