Today marks 50 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., signifying a dark and senseless moment in the nation’s history. Many who are living today remember where they were and what they felt when they learned of his death.
Millions of people around the world are expected to commemorate King’s life with peaceful marches and recollections of his dream; still deferred for many in America.
The King Arts Complex, a center dedicated to enriching King’s legacy through the arts in Columbus, Ohio, is staking a world-wide movement, calling for a moment of silence at 6:01 p.m. central time, the exact moment King was fatally struck on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
HelloBeautiful spoke to Demetries Neely, the center’s executive director, about the importance of King’s overarching legacy and how “60 seconds of peace” offers individuals the time and space to reflect and challenge themselves to initiate a personal pledge of non-violence and activism.
*Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
HB: Could you tell us a little bit about the King’s Arts Complex, how you began and the work that you do?
Demetries Neely: We are the Martin Luther King Jr. Performing and Cultural art’s complex, but we’re often referred to as the King Arts Complex. We were started 31 years ago by the city of Columbus in commemoration and tribute to Dr. King. We’re focused on performing arts, visual arts, literary arts and culture. We’re a staple in the community– we’re pretty much “the mecca” [in Columbus] as it relates to African-American arts and culture.
HB: A lot of times when people think about Martin Luther King Jr., they just think about his involvement in civil rights, but, he was involved in a lot of different aspects of trying to advocate for the disenfranchised, from his work with the Poor People’s Campaign, to looking at the uneven distribution of income– but he’s only mainly seen as a civil rights icon. How do the arts relate to his legacy, and how do you use the center to reinforce his legacy in that way?
DN: Dr.King also fought for the migrant farm workers, who were primarily Latino. He also fought against the Vietnam War, and when he was in his last days he talked about economic disparity, to your point. The visuals are all about him marching for civil rights, but he fought for all people. The arts are the great equalizer. It breaks down barriers and helps us understand things in ways we never thought. We have to have the arts as we try to traverse all the difficulties in life. Dr. King was a great lover of the arts–he was a great lover of music. He was known to love all kinds of music from jazz to blues, to gospel. So we celebrate him through the arts because it’s not a color, it’s not a race, it’s not an ethnicity, it’s an art.
HB: How were you personally affected by Dr. King and his legacy?
MN: I would not be where I am today without him. I am a child of the 70’s. I was born in the 50’s, raised in the 60’s and became an adult in the 70’s. I’m from South Carolina, so I lived in the Jim Crow area. My mom worked for voter registrations really before we had the right to vote. She was always active in the movement and I grew up watching that. So when Dr. King was assassinated, I was a little girl, but I remember it. He was certainly an iconic figure in our family. I grew up wanting to be a civil rights lawyer, so that’s why I went to law school because I wanted to help the disenfranchised and those impacted by laws that are not fair. Today I’m sitting here under the gaze of Dr. King and it’s never lost on me that I get to work at the King Arts Complex.
HB: Could you talk to us about “60 seconds for peace?”
MN: We’ve been working on what we would do for about three years now and we wanted to do something large. We have a lot of things going on from jazz, to music concerts to theatrical performances–we’re doing things over a two-week span. But, we wanted to do something the moment he was shot, 6:01 p.m. central standard time. We thought let’s just celebrate his legacy. And it’s about making pledges and commitments to live a life of peace and service. There are number of things going on all around the world and we’re capturing them. We want people to stop for one minute to pledge, to commit to actively participate in and focus on non-violence. We are having a concert and we’re going to stop to ring the bell tower for 60 seconds at the moment he was killed. We’ll have city officials there and we will demonstrate our act of non-violence. It’s not just for that moment but throughout the year–a smile, a random act of kindness. Change the trajectory of the world, your home, your friend group.
HB: King’s death anniversary is every year, but since there have been several shootings, not just in schools, but of also young men and women of color. So this pledge of peace is timely in the national conversation right now.
MN: I think you’re right, it changes the conversation. If go to what happened and start talking about Sacramento [Stephon Clark], or [in other states] if I start talking bout any of those things I get so worked up, trying to stay away from those examples. You have a young man who was doing nothing, all he had was a cell phone–I heard someone say, “Why with our kids is it shoot first, ask questions later?”and so if you think the police, the training and the policing of our country, in some ways, we’re 50 years backwards. It’s retro-1960’s in a lot of ways.
HB: How are you disseminating the message to participate in the “60 seconds for peace?”
MN: If someone wanted to make a pledge or send a video to showcase what they’re doing, you can send a video by going to the center’s website.
HB: What is your personal pledge?
MN: My personal pledge is to continue to show acts of kindness and to talk to people about doing the same thing. I’m the type of person if I see a person struggling, I’m going stop to offer help–and to do it without fear. Try to change a person’s life for one moment and oftentimes it’s contagious. And always assuming innocence–and let the person know that you’re assuming innocence. It’s quite simple but it can be profound.