This year would have marked the 36th anniversary of Lafayette’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, a three-day event that has always served as the flagship commemoration in the eight-parish region.
It remained steadfast when area MLK events dwindled, and even faded away.
“It’s been a good run,” says state Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, chairman of the Dr. Martin Luther King Holiday Committee. “It just reiterates that the foundation has been laid.”
But its cancellation was imminent due to COVID-19, which continues to spread with deadly disparities in its impact on African Americans.
This time, however, offers an opportunity to reflect locally on the slain civil rights leader’s legacy, and what it means today, particularly in wake of the recent insurrection at the Capitol.
For Boudreaux, the Washington, D.C., riot puts everything in focus: It was obvious that King’s message of non-violence and working in unity were being challenged.
And moreover, according to Boudreaux, democracy itself is at risk of being overturned.
“And that’s not the answer,” the state senator says.
Such recent events have caused some to question whether the U.S. is moving forward or backwards at times — and how its overheated politics hits home.
“I just think we need to be more careful and cautious of what we write on Facebook,” says Brenda Andrus, director of the holiday committee’s MLK Youth Pageant. “There’s a lot of hate going on on social media.”
Andrus doesn’t want Lafayette to be part of racial turmoil.
“I didn’t see that in the community,” Andrus says, “and it doesn’t need to start here. If it’s going on all over the world, don’t bring it here.”
Geri Brown, president of the New Iberia NAACP, is more adamant that racial strife has taken hold. And she blames President Donald Trump.
“All that King has fought for, it seemed like Trump is throwing away,” says Brown, whose chapter partnered with the Delta Sigma Theta sorority’s virtual MLK event this year.
“As the old people used to say,” Brown adds, “I know he’s turning over in his grave — he and John Lewis because of all they fought for.”
The insurrection left Brown shocked and dismayed that individuals may have wanted to kill Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“This is a hurting feeling,” she says.
As she reflects on King’s holiday, Brown admits that the make-up of the Capitol mob made her leery that more people than she suspected could be racist. “You could be sitting with someone next to you,” she says, “and you don’t know what they’re thinking about, and you think they’re all right. This is just devastating.”
Also apparent, according to Boudreaux, is that some national leaders are trying to backtrack and backslide after the insurrection. “We’re for First Amendment rights,” he says, “but we’re not for the violence.”
Boudreaux notes that King died defending the sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn. He did not believe in tearing down democracy. “That wasn’t who Dr. Martin Luther King was, that wasn’t how he operated,” Boudreaux says.
But hope remains.
Boudreaux says these days offer everyone, particularly our youth, an opportunity to live through history, from the pandemic through the insurrection, and to be able to say, “We stood the course. We followed the lead of Dr. King.”
For 17-year-old Kamryn Babineaux, who continues her reign as Miss MLK Queen because festivities were canceled, King is someone to admire.
“He wanted change,” Babineaux says. “He wanted blacks and whites to work together and be one so we wouldn’t be a divided country as we are today.”
Babineaux cites police brutality, and the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police as evidence that the country is divided. “If we were one country working together,” she says, “this would never happen.”
Also among the youth is 16-year-old Brendan Jones who continues his reign as Mr. MLK King. He reveres King because of his quest for justice and equality.
“He found a way to bring some of us together,” Jones says. “A world without conflict would be a wonderful world. But where we are today, it’s simply a dream.”
But that dream is also a confirmation. It means the mountaintop is still in sight, and the dream is still alive.
“We have not strayed away from that,” Boudreaux says.