More than half a century after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Wes Bellamy had a question for Baton Rouge's residents: "What are you doing to fulfill his dream?”
The keynote speaker at Monday's MLK Jr. Day services rose to prominence for leading the effort to take down public statues of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as a member of Charlottesville's City Council in Virginia.
“Make no mistake about it, we are in very serious times,” Bellamy said. "It's going to take a lot more of us being willing to strap up our boots and go into the streets than just sitting in the pews and saying 'yeah'."
The spirit of that impassioned call to action was met on Monday when more than 3,000 volunteers turned out to paint blighted buildings, clear vacant lots and help beautify property along the Plank Road corridor as part of the Walls Project's sixth annual MLK Fest.
The day of remembrance and service began Monday morning with an hour-long program at Star Hill Baptist Church sponsored by the NAACP that featured tributes and meditations on the civil rights icon's enduring message.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter,” said East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, quoting King. Her remarks followed a performance by Star Hill's Anointed Hands of Testimony puppet troupe.
For years, an overgrown thicket of shrubs and trees, discarded Sheetrock and tires crowded the vacant lot off Plank Road and Erie Street, an e…
Dallas Stepter, a member of the church's youth group, led the hundreds in attendance in an stirring rendition of King's famous "I Have A Dream" speech. The third grader barely reached the microphone — even with a step stool — but his voice reverberated through the sanctuary.
Following the program, attendees marched nearly 3 miles from Star Hill Baptist to the MLK Fest block party at the corner of Plank Road and Chippewa Street. The procession was led by women whose families have been impacted by gun violence.
"Today it's my child, but tomorrow it could be their child. We have to put the guns down," Elizabeth Robinson, whose son was murdered in 2018, said in an interview following the march. "We have to start showing love to everyone."
Gov. John Bel Edwards, who was reelected in the fall thanks largely to support from the state's black voters, made a brief appearance at the block party, likening his second term agenda to King's own fight for economic justice.
"We have to do more than just celebrate. We actually have to act," Edwards said. He reminded the audience that King was assassinated in 1968 while organizing mass meetings alongside sanitation workers striking for fairer working conditions in Memphis, Tennessee.
Organizers hope to begin construction on at least one of the six major projects aimed at transforming a section of Plank Road within the next year.
"Here we are all these years later, we're better off, but we're not where we need to be," Edwards said, pledging to fight for a higher minimum wage.
Monday marked the conclusion of the Walls Project's four-day MLK Fest. Started in 2012, the Walls Project uses hands-on public art experiences to revitalize blighted and overlooked neighborhoods. The nonprofit recently turned its focus to Plank Road, an under-resourced thoroughfare in north Baton Rouge that is now the subject of an expansive redevelopment plan.
“We’re going to keep going inch by inch down Plank Road helping to revitalize it as much as possible,” said Helena Williams, an organizer with the Walls Project on Sunday. She said they will spend the next two to three years working on properties along the corridor between Choctaw Drive and Hollywood Street.