KAILUA-KONA — Nearly 40 years after it began, the gathering has grown, but the message remains the same.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision for America was one of freedom, equality, opportunity and brotherhood for all — an ideal for which this country still strives.
Beginning at 11:30 a.m. Sunday, the 39th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Kailua-Kona Community Celebration will do just that at the Old Kona Airport Beach Park Makaeo pavilion. And while nothing’s changed behind the great work and words the civil rights leader pioneered during the era of segregation in America, the local gathering has mushroomed since those early days four decades ago.
“I always say the first meeting was under the bushes,” said Virginia Halliday on the inaugural event at the park which saw 15 people show up. “They had just planted trees and they weren’t tall enough to stand under.”
Last January, 500 visitors took part. The message, of course, is as true today as it’s ever been.
“People know it’s a community celebration,” Halliday said. “He preached and ran for all people, all mankind.”
This year’s program participants are ample. They include The West Hawaii County Band, The Kona Choral Society, Big Island Kona Marshallese Community Association Chorus, local students, bands and choruses. It’ll also showcase poems, speeches, dance and more.
Back in the early days, organizers used to have to call to arrange for groups to take part. Nowadays, however, the groups and volunteers reach out and ask to join. That community buy-in, especially in the younger generation who wasn’t around during King’s days, makes it all worth it, Halliday said.
“That’s our source for keeping Dr. King’s legacy alive,” she said.
A complimentary luncheon will run from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and the free program will start at 1:15 p.m. That’s a change from the previous years, where lunch was pot-luck style, so guests are asked not to bring any food.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a U.S. federal holiday in honor of Dr. King. Observed on the third Monday of January, it was first celebrated in 1986.
But the late Frank Bramlett paved the way for the annual celebration in Kailua-Kona to start before the official holiday did. His efforts ensured Kona’s version was the first of its kind in Hawaii, and beat the national designations by a few years when he got it off the ground in 1981.
Coordinated by Mamie Bramlett and Halliday, they were later joined by Kathy Simmons as one of the coordinators. Because of its popularity it was necessary to form a committee, which they did in 2008.
Ernest Young, organizer and committee member, was a senior in high school in 1968, the year King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. He lived through segregation, but did not sink into bitterness or anger when the great leader was taken too early. Instead, he decided to walk the words King talked.
“I had to go out into society and be the best person I could be,” he said.
It’s an example he hopes everyone can follow — regardless of race or creed — just as he tried to do as a teenager. And it’s as relevant today as it ever was. The United States is the best country in the world, he said, and with everybody reaching for the same goal, it can be even greater.
“I just hope they march on, try to do good,” he said. “And that will make this a much better country.”
Info: Halliday at 325-1112 or Mamie Bramlett at 331-1448.