January 2, 2013 9:29:49 AM
"As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back."
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. 50 years ago and spoke these words during his now-famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
And this month, from Jan. 16 through Jan. 21, organizers of the annual Dream365 event are embracing that sentiment, celebrating the progress that has been made in civil rights while continuing to look forward to a more unified city, state and nation.
The event, which is expected to draw as many as 10,000 people, has grown exponentially since its inception in 2005, transforming from a one-day, grassroots effort to a six-day celebration of King's life and the ideals for which he stood.
Every year, something new is added, said Rev. Tony Montgomery, who, along with Learnard Dickerson and Lavonne Harris, founded Dream365.
This year, an additional day has been added to the festivities, and there will be a spelling bee drawing children from city and county schools in Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Clay and Noxubee counties.
Another key addition this year is a march -- something the organizers initially said they would never hold.
"Originally, we didn't march because marching was the protest that needed to happen (back then), and we felt like, coming into it, 'Let's focus on the celebration aspect," Montgomery said. "But this year, we stopped and said, 'We have to do a march, because it was the greatest moment of protest in our country.'"
He said he hopes there will be "a sea of people" -- black and white -- who join them.
The symbolic march will begin at the Columbus Riverwalk Jan. 20 at 3 p.m and will end at the Lowndes County Courthouse at 4:30 p.m.
'A better Mississippi'
It's a special year in many ways for the black community, kicking off with the 150th anniversary of Watch Night, which was celebrated this past New Year's Eve and commemorates President Abraham Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared slaves "forever free."
Jan. 13 will mark what would have been King's 84th birthday, and April 4 will mark the 45th anniversary of his death. Along with the 50th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech, this year is also the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which killed four girls in Birmingham, Ala., and marked a turning point in the civil rights movement.
Montgomery worries that without events like Dream365, future generations will grow up unaware of the sacrifices and struggles their ancestors underwent for the freedoms they now enjoy. Already, he said, he finds children who know King was "that preacher," but little more.
"We're getting so far away from our country's history," he said. "Every teachable moment that we can give the children kind of ties things together for them. Every year, we're trying to teach them about this historic moment in time and these historic people."
The spelling bee, along with an essay contest and youth night, are ways to include the younger generations in Dream365. This year, students from the Columbus Municipal School District were asked to write essays about what issues they would march about today. Montgomery said a quick peek through the entries revealed concerns about bullying and homelessness.
Those problems, along with the quality of education in Mississippi, the lack of a trained workforce and religious segregation, worry Montgomery, too. If King was alive today, he said, he would be working on all of these issues.
On one hand, he said, there has been a great deal of progress in race relations. But he still sees pockets of injustice and racism, and as current activists age and leave the forefront, it will be important for future generations to take up their fight.
"We need to engage each other more and stop avoiding each other and being so distrusting," he said of race relations in Mississippi. "For people who say they want to see a better Mississippi, then come to the table and work with other people to make it a better Mississippi. We know what the problems are and what the past has given us -- let's start with the small things and work from there."
As Dream365 grows bigger, it also requires more hands, more time and more money. Between 70 and 80 volunteers are working on this year's event, which has a projected budget of $35,000. That's cheap compared with some years, which have cost as much as $60,000.
After much haggling, the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitor's Bureau contributed $15,000 to the effort, voting against the initial request of $27,500.
One of the biggest expenses is paying for the guest speakers.
This year, the keynote speaker will be Texas lawyer Harry E. Johnson, who is president and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation. He will speak at a commemorative breakfast at the Trotter Convention Center Jan. 21 from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.
Joseph K. Byrd, vice president for student services at Xavier University in Louisiana, will speak after Sunday's march.
Montgomery said he hopes that as Dream365 grows bigger and garners more national attention, it will change people's perceptions of Mississippi.
"So many people still have a negative view of Mississippi," he said. "We're trying to put on an event that speaks volumes about where we've come from and where we're headed as a state. We have produced so many great people. We want people to want to come to Mississippi."
For more information about Dream365, including a complete schedule of events and ticket prices, please visit dream365.info.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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