‘We need to wake up’: Kansas celebration of MLK urges end to divisiveness

By: - January 12, 2023 3:47 pm

Sen. David Haley and Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau lead the annual march in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. around the Statehouse. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Angela Bates told a crowd gathered Thursday at the Statehouse to celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. there is one thing we all have in common.

We’re all going to die.

The question, she said, is what footprint will you leave on the free soils of Kansas?

“I urge us all to have a new dream — a dream of togetherness,” Bates said. “We need to look to one another and support one another. We need to do something for ourselves. We need to stop pointing the fingers and look in the mirror and say to ourselves, ‘What can we do to have a dream and make it a reality?’ ”

Angela Bates
Angela Bates, founder of the Nicodemus Historical Society, tells a crowd gathered inside the Statehouse that we need a new dream — one of togetherness. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Bates, founder of the Nicodemus Historical Society, was the keynote speaker at the annual celebration ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Political, religious and civic leaders marched around the Statehouse, led by a marching band featuring students from Highland Park, Topeka High and Topeka West.

Evan Watson, pastor at El Shaddai Ministries in Topeka, led the group in prayer before the march. Watson said we can honor King by taking a moment to reflect on his leadership.

“Let us pray for unity and peace in our deeply divided country and for us to continue to push for racial equality throughout the world,” he said.

Watson recalled these words of King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”

Evan Watson, pastor at El Shaddai Ministries in Topeka, offers a prayer before the MLK march at the Statehouse. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Stacey Knoell, executive director of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission, led the ceremonies inside the Statehouse.

Gov. Laura Kelly signed a proclamation declaring Jan. 16 as Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Kansas. The governor couldn’t attend the ceremony after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier this week.

Carolyn Wims-Campbell, an aide in the senator minority leader’s office, read the proclamation on behalf of the governor. Wims-Campbell was the first Black person to serve on the Kansas State Board of Education, winning the first of her two terms in 2008.

“I urge all citizens to reflect upon Dr. King’s message and celebrate diversity as one world, one community, to further advance the principles of justice and equality,” Wims-Campbell read.

Carolyn Wims-Campbell sings “Lift Every Voice and Sing” with other crowd members at the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at the Statehouse. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Mark McCormick, deputy executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Reflector columnist, introduced Bates as a historian and winner of numerous awards related to the preservation of African-American history.

Bates talked about the history of Nicodemus, an all-Black town in northwest Kansas settled in 1877 by refugees from the South. They wanted to own land, govern themselves and enjoy freedom in the state that helped propel the country into civil war.

Bates also recalled hearing about King’s death on April 4, 1968, when she was a high school sophomore in Pasadena, California.

“I remember crying like so many of us did, and I just remember thinking, ‘OK, now we’ve lost this great civil rights leader. Now where do we go? Where do go? What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen?’ ” Bates said. “And then it was like a little bird chirped on my shoulder and said, ‘It’s going to be all right.’ And I relied on my own spiritual fortitude and my own understandings of who I was as an African American.”

We all have a dream, Bates said.

“Some of us are living a nightmare, and I say we need to wake up,” Bates said. “This country is so divided — name anything. Whether it be economics, religion, color — it doesn’t matter. This country has been focused on divisiveness, and I say we need to have a dream of coming together.”

Students from Highland Park, Topeka High and Topeka West high schools perform in a marching band outside the Statehouse. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He is a lifelong Kansan.