FORT SMITH -- Coming together to help address societal problems will be the focus of an annual slate of celebrations in the River Valley honoring the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith is partnering with area agencies to host events in recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day starting today. They will be open to the public and continue through Saturday, according to a university news release.
Williams Yamkam, associate professor of political science and advisor to the UAFS Democracy Project, said the celebrations, which UAFS has put on with the community for years, fit perfectly with the university's roles as a higher education institution and partner with local stakeholders. UAFS and its partners try to emphasize the educational component of King's legacy and showcase a certain element of this legacy every year due to it being too large to be fully discussed in a day or week.
Jackie Flake, pastor of Community Bible Church's north Fort Smith campus, said the theme for this year's celebrations, "Crossing the Bridge over Troubled Waters," stems from the bridges civil rights activists crossed together to find solutions to problems.
An example is the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, which in 1965 was part of the Selma to Montgomery marches and the site of "Bloody Sunday," an incident that left dozens of marchers injured, according to the National Archives and Records Administration website.
"We still have a lot of different troubled waters within our society, and a lot of them people, in some cases, don't like to often talk about, or if they do talk about them, we're talking about them within certain pockets," Flake said. "And so for us to cross this bridge together over certain troubled waters within society for the purpose of finding solutions together as a community, it's just critical."
Yamkam said part of King's legacy is his work to build bridges and bring people together.
This year's events in King's honor will take place at UAFS and throughout Fort Smith, according to the news release. The first will be a "concert of prayer" at 5 p.m. today at James Missionary Baptist Church.
A staple of the annual celebrations, the breakfast and panel discussion, will be held 7:30 a.m. Monday at the Elm Grove Community Center at Fort Smith's MLK Park. The discussion will highlight the importance of coming together to address issues facing the community in keeping with this year's theme, the news release states.
The panelists will include:
• Carl Geffken, Fort Smith city administrator.
• Keith Gibson, businessman and Arkansas state highway commissioner.
• Ann-Gee Lee, university professor of English and rhetoric; advisor to the UAFS Cultural Network; Read This Program advisor; and Literacy Council board member.
• Karla Palma, community organizer, Arkansas United Community Coalition.
• Jay Richardson, state representative, House District 49.
Nya Stewart, a junior at UAFS from Memphis, Tenn., will serve as the panel's moderator. Stewart, 21, said via email she feels confident and honored to participate in the event.
"I will be responsible for guiding and leading a discussion that will capitalize the issues, actions and resolutions that have taken place in our community in alliance with crossing the bridge since Martin Luther King's left his legacy," Stewart said.
The breakfast and panel discussion will be followed by a march around MLK Park at 9:30 a.m.
UAFS will host two other public events on campus, according to the news release. Matt McCoy, an associate professor at the university, will give a lecture on the civil rights movement from 11 a.m. through 12:15 p.m. Thursday in Room 201 in the Gardner Building while Lee will deliver a presentation on collaboration to foster cultural tolerance from 1 to 1:50 p.m. Friday in Room 235 in the Vines Building.
People can also donate peanut butter to the River Valley Regional Food Bank via collection boxes at the UAFS Campus Center on Monday through Saturday, as well as the Elm Grove Community Center on Monday. Books and other media concerning the civil rights movement will be on display at the UAFS Boreham Library during the week as well.
Stewart said she has high expectations for this year's events due to it being the first time since the 2020 onset of the covid-19 pandemic in which most of them will be held in person, as opposed to virtually.
"Personally, I expect to gain more knowledge from people who have made strides and continue to better the community," Stewart said. "Local residents also may gain knowledge about events they can get involved in to help."
Last year’s theme
The theme of the events the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith facilitated to honor Martin Luther King Jr. in 2022 was “Living the Maladjusted Life: Always Putting Others First.” It was inspired by a speech King gave at Western Michigan University on Dec. 18, 1963.