Societies need nonviolent gadflies to create the social tension that will help overcome prejudice and racism, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote while detained in a Birmingham, Alabama, jail in 1963.
Six decades later, as the country prepares to celebrate King’s legacy on Monday, his calls for unity aren’t yet fully realized in Jacksonville — Friday will mark the fifth straight year of separate breakfasts honoring the slain civil rights icon after civil rights organizations say they were left out of the city’s commemoration.
This year, in what it calls “the official 36th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Virtual Community Empowerment Breakfast,” the NAACP is hosting speaker Aramis Ayala, the recent Democratic Florida attorney general candidate who battled with former Gov. Rick Scott over her anti-death penalty stance when she was a prosecutor. At the exact same time, hospitality executive and author Simon T. Bailey is set to address the crowd at the Prime Osborn Convention Center for the city’s “36th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast.”
One breakfast became two in 2019 after Jacksonville NAACP President Isaiah Rumlin challenged the city to devote more dollars in Northwest Jacksonville, on the Westside and Out East.
“As it relates to the reason why we had to move away from the city of Jacksonville…we were no longer involved in the planning of the breakfast,” Rumlin tells Jacksonville Today.
“The city of Jacksonville is large enough to have as many King breakfasts as they want to,” he says, adding that whoever is elected mayor this year “needs to be able to reach out to all sections of this community in order to make a better Jacksonville.”
Mayor Lenny Curry’s office did not respond to an emailed request for comment for this story.
In a Jan. 4 statement promoting the city’s breakfast, Curry said, “This event provides an opportunity for all ages to join in strengthening community bonds and renew our commitment to Dr. King’s vision of freedom, justice and equality.”
Symptom of a deeper division?
Rumlin says inaction on removing the Daughters of the Confederacy statue from Springfield Park — as well as the City Council’s racially gerrymandered redistricting — are indicators of Jacksonville’s racial division.
And, while the Jaguars have united large swaths of Duval County behind the whims of an oblong piece of leather, the Confederate battle flag has been flown behind planes over TIAA Bank Field prior to multiple games this season.
“Until we deal with our issues, or some of our issues in Jacksonville, I think we are going to continue to see a display of these types of activities,” Rumlin says.
Jacksonville’s City Council has been debating whether to keep monuments to the Confederacy on public property for more than half a decade, which Rumlin argues, hinders the community economically — a claim the JAX Chamber didn’t respond to after several requests by Jacksonville Today. Chamber CEO Daniel Davis is largely seen as the frontrunner in this spring’s mayoral race.
Blake Harper, who’s among those pushing for the Springfield Park monument to stay on public property, says he too admires King because the Atlanta-born preacher espoused civil disobedience and believed in peaceful resolutions.
Harper is the leader of the Unity Project of Jacksonville, an advocacy group that, he says, “promotes reconciliation.” However, the group’s tactics have been decried as “dangerous” by those on the other side of the monument debate.
This month, the Unity Project posted photos on social media of anti-monument activists with the label “The people who want to destroy Jacksonville’s history.” One of those activists, Ben Frazier, says he feared the “predominantly white” group was trying to target them with the threat of violence incited by its “racist hit list.”
Harper tells Jacksonville Today that additional monuments, remembrances and context should be added at Springfield Park and other areas of Jacksonville so the negative portions of American history are remembered and not repeated.
“We are a country of many different peoples,” Harper says. “The differences in the people create an amazing mosaic. We don’t need to be segmented. Our demographic communities don’t need to be isolated…We are not talking about the Jim Crow South of the early 1900s. We are talking about Jacksonville, Florida, a city of color and diversity, and people want to come here.”
More MLK Day Plans
There may be separate breakfasts Friday in Jacksonville, but there will only be one march. On Monday, MLK Day, Jacksonville’s 42nd annual Martin Luther King Holiday Grand Parade will make a loop Downtown beginning on Water Street. The parade starts at 10 a.m.
Shirley Mikel-Meeks, a volunteer with the Martin Luther King Foundation, says her organization’s parade should be seen as a symbol of unity.
King championed civil rights, voting rights, economic rights and an expectation that the American government would extend the ideals of freedom and liberty to all citizens. He was shot in the face for those efforts.
“The only way that we can understand history, and our culture, is that it’s taught,” Mikel-Meeks says. “Teaching it starts at home and then it moves to school. The more we talk about African American history, along with other histories, the more we all will learn.”
Mikel-Meeks, a retired educator who has lived in Jacksonville for years, says we all must be willing to share not only what we know, but receive what others know as well.
While 2023 is certainly not 1963, Mikel-Meeks says there will always be an ongoing struggle for human rights.
“Things are better than before,” she says. “In order to make those changes, we have to organize and unite all people to come together so we can move forward, so we can make a difference and ensure equality for all people in Jacksonville.”