January 10, 2022
Community Voices / MLK Day in Bellingham: looking backward, stepping forward
Clyde W. Ford

The Bellingham community-organized Martin Luther King Jr. Day event has featured a variety of speakers since its inception in the early 1990s; in 2008, King speechwriter Vincent Harding, who wrote King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, was featured. The organizing committee chose not to hold an in-person event this year, instead urging attention on voting rights legislation, and avoiding potential spread of COVID-19. (Courtesy photo)

January 10, 2022
Community Voices / MLK Day in Bellingham: looking backward, stepping forward
Clyde W. Ford

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The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

In the spring of 1990, I asked Renee Collins, then president of the now-defunct Bellingham chapter of the NAACP, to accompany me into Mayor Tim Douglas’ office. I said to Tim, “The state commemorates Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Western Washington University commemorates that day, even Whatcom County does. But the City of Bellingham doesn’t.” Tim, being the thoughtful, community-minded mayor he was, set to work with us to change that.

Roger Griffiths, then director of the Kulshan Chorus, stepped up to say the chorus was in full support for a community-based event, and they wanted to perform. Larry Estrada, a professor at WWU, drafted a proclamation, adopted by Bellingham’s city council, in honor of this day. We held our first MLK Day commemoration the following January 1991 inside City Hall.

We strove to present a side of King that many refused to acknowledge, or did not know. King of “I Have a Dream” is the convenient, palatable hero for most Americans. We wanted to highlight the inconvenient hero — the King of the Poor People’s Campaign; the King of bringing the Southern Freedom Struggle to the North; the King who challenged America to live up to its highest ideals; the King of the “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

Over the years, we had a variety of community speakers — from young children to fighters for immigrant rights to elected officials to religious leaders. In 2008, we were graced with the presence of Vincent Harding, King’s speechwriter, who actually penned the words to King’s eloquent “Beyond Vietnam” speech. And, at each event, faithfully, the Kulshan Chorus performed.

The event outgrew City Hall, and moved to the Bellingham Municipal Court. It outgrew the Municipal Court and moved to the Mount Baker Theater, always with the support of the City of Bellingham. This was the people’s event for a day that honored King, and that recognized the importance of community here in Bellingham and Whatcom County. In fact, it’s fair to say that this MLK Day event was the largest single community event held each year.

A shift

Something shifted this year. A group of regional institutions — WWU, Skagit Valley College, Bellingham Technical College, Whatcom Community College, Northwest Indian College, Peace Health, the Bellingham school district and others — convened without acknowledging or informing the community-based organizing committee for MLK Day, but with the City of Bellingham’s eventual participation, to plan an MLK Day event at the Mount Baker Theater. When the community organizing committee learned of the event, many of us were shocked and we felt betrayed.

Those of us who began the MLK Day commemoration in Bellingham always envisioned this as a community-planned event. We operated on a shoestring budget. We reached out to local institutions, like banks, labor unions and the Community Food Co-op, and they supported us financially. I never envisioned this day to be centered around an institutionally organized event, particularly one which bypassed the local organizing committee that had worked on, and planned, this event for so long.

Two other matters impinged on this year’s community MLK Day event.

First, the King family asked that this MLK Day not be celebrated, at a time when voting rights were under attack.  Voting rights were central, absolutely central, to King’s agenda and that of the Southern Freedom Struggle. I find it distasteful to watch partisans across the country enact legislation restricting voting rights, which many men and women in previous years have protested and died for. America cannot afford to go back to a time when the voices of the formerly enslaved and the currently marginalized are barred from being heard at the ballot box.

There was also the matter of COVID-19, and a predicted spike due to the omicron variant, that would peak just around MLK Day 2022. With rates of COVID-19 rising, not falling, the community organizing committee felt it was irresponsible to hold any indoor public event on Jan. 17, 2022. The committee felt the community should be protected. We did not want to provide for a mass gathering that could possibly turn into a super-spreader event.

For these reasons, the community event organizing committee called for our friends and neighbors to honor King in a different way this year: to write or call elected representatives and the White House to demand passage of legislation protecting voting rights, even if it means doing away with the filibuster.

Uncertain future

The community event organizing committee has always supported other events taking place on MLK Day, and we still do. But in the face of an institutionally organized, and financed, MLK Day event, supported by the City of Bellingham, the future of our community-based event remains uncertain. 

So, this MLK Day, I hope my friends and neighbors will not only write to their federal representatives but also to Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood and Bellingham City Council to say, “We want the city to support a community-based MLK Day event untethered from institutions. We want the time from noon to 1 p.m. on MLK Day reserved for this community-based event at the Mount Baker Theater. And we do not want this people’s event ever taken over by local and regional institutions planning their events for that day.”

— Commentary by Clyde W. Ford

Contacts for comments about voting rights legislation:

  • The White House: 202-456-1111, whitehouse.gov/contact/
  • U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell: 206-220-6400 (Seattle), 202-224-3441 (DC), maria_cantwell@cantwell.senate.gov
  • U.S. Sen. Patty Murray: 202-224-2621 (DC), senator_murray@murray.senate.gov
  • U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen: 202-225-2605 (DC), rick.larsen@mail.house.gov

Salish Current welcomes letters to the editor responding to or amplifying subjects addressed in Community Voices. If you wish to contribute to Community Voices, please send an email with a subject proposal to Managing Editor Mike Sato (msato@rockisland.com) and he will respond with guidelines.