Local marchers, leaders say Martin Luther King Jr. Day is relevant to modern inequalities and push for change

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ST. LOUIS COUNTY — Residents and community leaders gathered — and marched — Monday in remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr. and his life’s work advancing basic rights of African Americans.

Many said that Monday’s federal holiday in his honor not only provided a chance to commemorate King but also to reflect on wide-ranging examples of “unfinished business” amid the ongoing push for racial equality in American society. They cited inequalities spanning educational and economic opportunities, law enforcement and criminal justice, housing, health care and voting.

“We’ve made progress, but there’s a lot of unfinished business,” said FeliceSkye Hutchinson, president of the Wellston Community Coalition, before starting the day’s march.

“It’s so relevant today,” added Terry Wilson, a Jennings City Council member, describing the enduring significance of King’s work. “He laid the blueprint. … There’s still a lot of work to do.”

Starting just beyond the St. Louis city limits, marchers traveled more than a mile from Wellston to Pine Lawn, in north St. Louis County, for the annual Mid-County Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration. In speeches that capped the event and in conversations during the march, many participants said modern racial inequalities illustrate a continued need for activism and progress.

Some said that, as someone who had been jailed, King would likely take an interest today in matters tied to unequal policing and sentencing in the criminal justice system. Others pointed out that King’s message powerfully resonates in other aspects of today’s society, where radically different opportunities and outcomes are found from ZIP code to ZIP code — often characterized by race.

Some marchers said the differences are perhaps most starkly reflected in housing and economic development policies in Black communities.

“The fact that every Martin Luther King Boulevard looks the way it does, that’s a problem,” said Aniya Betts, an ambassador for Young Voices With Action, the local organization that arranged Monday’s event.

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Mid-County Martin Luther King Jr. Parade and Program

Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis, gives a speech during the Mid-County Martin Luther King Jr. Parade and Program in Pine Lawn on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022.

A host of local and state elected officials attended the day’s march and ceremony, as well as U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis. During a speech following the march, Bush said King’s ideals stand in stark contrast with widespread Republican efforts to limit voting rights and influence elections — including 440 voting-related bills in 49 states, by her tally.

“It’s a reminder of how much work we still have to do,” she said.

She said King’s push for civil rights also faced an obstacle that’s at the heart of national politics today: the filibuster, which is currently holding Democrats back from advancing legislation with sweeping safeguards for voting rights.

“It’s an arbitrary Senate rule — a rule that is a relic of Jim Crow,” said Bush. She said that, in the past, the same procedural rule was used to delay passage of the Civil Rights Act and to stop lynching from being designated as a federal hate crime.

Amid the continued struggle for changes, reforms and greater equality, some said it’s important to keep King’s approach in mind. He showed it’s OK to be angry but that harnessing frustration in a constructive and peaceful way was an effective means of countering injustices.

And no matter the odds or difficulties in bringing about change, it’s most important to try, Wellston Councilman Samuel Shannon said ahead of the march.

“The only thing that’s out of reach are the things that we won’t reach for,” he said.

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