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Service to honor civil rights leader

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Fred King remembers being excited as a 10-year-old youngster to see children’s entertainer Captain Kangaroo at a theater in King’s hometown of Birmingham, Ala. — until he realized he and his black friends would have to sit in the dank, dark balcony.

“Where the whites sat was beautiful,” King said.

The 61-year-old Columbus resident reminisced recently as he discussed his planned remarks for the 34th Annual Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration and Scholarship Recognition Service. The event will be 4 p.m. Jan. 13 at Columbus’ Calvary Community Church.

The theme will be, “We’ve Come This Far by Faith.”

“Talking about these things keeps everybody aware of where we’ve come from,” said Fred King, who is not related to Martin Luther King. “And it can help keep us focused on where we’re going.”

King said he recently discovered a 2009 statistic from the Pew Research Center that the wealth gap between whites and blacks is greater than it has ever been since the government began publishing such data. He also found that black men earn only about 72 percent as much as white men — not much better than in 1969, a year after the death of civil rights leader King.

He’s uncertain what to make of that, except that it can make these annual services all the more important to keep issues and the need for improvement in front of people.

“But I want to highlight the positive, too,” King said. “And I think the election and re-election of President Obama has given a great feeling to many.”

He also wants to highlight Martin Luther King himself, an ordained minister who exercised considerable influence in southern cities such as Fred King’s hometown. King led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which pushed for desegregation of Birmingham’s downtown merchants in 1963.

Birmingham also was the site of where police turned fire hoses on demonstrating schoolchildren who had joined a civil rights protest in May 1963. National news coverage sparked a public outcry.

“I feel he accomplished a great deal in such a short time,” King said. “And I believe he was picked by God for the position he filled.

“Too many things came together at the right time to ignore that.”

Columbus’ Lisa Wood, the organizer of the local church service, witnessed a different 1960s for herself and other blacks. She grew up in California.

“Racism was kind of underneath the surface there,” Wood said. “It was not really out in the open.”

She sees the annual services here as significant for one particular reason. And she need look no farther than the 7-month-old granddaughter she held in her lap as she spoke.

She mentioned that, without a retelling of stories and struggles, the younger generation perhaps could miss the power of today’s rights enjoyed by all. Also, even with all the mainstream MLK Day services that unfold nationwide, she likes the idea of one tied directly to faith.

“We were the have-nots,” Wood said. “If we had not had something like our faith to lean on through our experiences, some of us might not have made it.”

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