After years of struggle to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday, the first Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was finally observed on Jan. 20, 1986.
Unlike some national holidays, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day has been celebrated with activities that truly reflect the extremely active, highly respected man it honors.
A survey of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day events across the nation reveals an endless number of activities relevant to the man and his values.
Many communities participate with a day of service, often cleaning up their streets and collecting clothing and blankets for homeless shelters and the less fortunate.
Other communities celebrate with cultural events. Musicians of all ages compose or play music of all kinds, from gospel and soul to folk and rap. Poets write poems about the need for equality and non-violence. Artists create relevant paintings, murals and sculptures.
Large cities often stage parades. Los Angeles holds the largest Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in the country, with a birthday cake served at the city’s African-American Museum. Atlanta hosts a large parade and a 5K marathon run to help raise money for worthwhile causes.
As impressive as these events have been elsewhere, it is well to remember that the people of Valencia County have also been celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day in these and many other ways for almost 30 years.
For decades, the University of New Mexico’s Valencia Campus has sponsored well-attended Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations. They are inspiring galas, filled with powerful music, dance, poems and speeches.
The Belen Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Multi-Cultural Commission has been active as well. The commission was created in 1992 under the leadership of Mayor Richard Aragon and such early members as Geneva Nixon, Serena Douglas, Cortez Kibble, Charlie Smith, Miles Michael, Julie Baca and Mary Anderson.
The commission held its first Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day evening vigil at Anna Becker Park on Jan. 11, 1993. In 1994, they began the tradition of burning small candles at the vigil to honor not only Dr. King, but especially his values. In 1995, the commission created a pledge of non-violence that attendees read to candlelight at the end of each annual event.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day vigils in Belen soon expanded to honor local residents who had committed random acts of kindness without any expectation of recognition or rewards. Awards were also given to children for the best creative works expressing Dr. King’s ideas in posters, poems, music and essays.
The commission has remained active throughout each year. It has joined with other organizations to sponsor a fund-raising 5-mile walk and rally. At each Thanksgiving, the commission has prepared food baskets for deserving families in the community.
The commission has also sponsored college scholarships for local high school students, largely based on their interest in non-violence and racial equality. For years, commission member Serena Douglas wrote regular columns about Black history in the News-Bulletin. Now authored by others, it continues, on at least an annual basis.
Thanks to the support of the New Mexico State Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission and the city of Belen, the local commission remains among the most active organizations of its kind in the state.
Under the able leadership of chair persons like Terese “Tinky” Ulivarri, the commission still holds candlelight vigils, first at Anna Becker Park, then at the Heart of Belen and now at the Belen Public Library. Hundreds attend. As always, the emphasis is on teaching each new generation the importance of non-violence and racial harmony.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once declared that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” Dr. King’s Day should serve as a source of light not only on one day of the year, but for every minute of every day of the year. How else can we hope to drive out the darkness of violence, hatred and discrimination in our troubled world?
(Due to COVID-19, the Dr. martin Luther King Candlelight Vigil/Celebration of Life has been postponed to 6 p.m., Monday, April 4, at the Belen Public Library. The contest submission deadlines have been extended to March 7.)
Richard Melzer, guest columnist
Richard Melzer, Ph.D., is a retired history professor who taught at The University of New Mexico–Valencia campus for more than 35 years. He has served on the board of directors of the Valencia County Historical Society for 30 years; he has served as the society’s president several times.
He has written many books and articles about New Mexico history, including many works on Valencia County, his favorite topic. His newest book, a biography of Casey Luna, was published in the spring of 2021.
Those interested in joining the Valencia County Historical Society should contact Dr. Melzer at email@example.com.