Tyson had recently moved to Swain County from Atlanta, where MLK Day celebrations and ceremonies were prominent. But “last year in January with the King holiday rolling around, I couldn’t find anything posted in the local community that there was any type of event,” Tyson recounts. “It seemed bizarre to me to find myself living in a community that took the holiday off, but there wasn’t an event to honor the holiday or the essence of the holiday. I personally felt stunned by that.”
Tyson traveled to neighboring Jackson County to take part in a celebration, but she came back wondering — is there any reason Swain County couldn’t have an event honoring MLK Day?
“When I sort of started asking myself and other folks that question, the answer that came back to me is that if you want something done in the community, you have to get it together,” Tyson remembers.
Janice Inabinett, another Swain County resident, is one of the people that encouraged Tyson when she called to ask for advice.
“I kind of challenged her and said, if you don’t want to be making the same call a year from now, you better do something about it,” Inabinett said.
So Tyson began her quest to establish a celebration in recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Swain County. After months of work, the county’s first-ever Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission will hold a ceremony on Jan. 21 honoring the life and legacy of the civil rights leader, who was assassinated in 1968.
“We made the decision, instead of continuing to sit and sort of bat the idea around, we decided to put some of those ideas into action and move forward and announce ourselves to the community,” Tyson said.
The commission was officially recognized by both Swain County commissioners and the town of Bryson City last month.
The path to establish a Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday was a long one. Efforts began after King’s death in 1968, but the holiday didn’t come to fruition until then-president Ronald Reagan signed it into law in 1986. The 15-year struggle to establish the holiday was marked by controversy and resistance, according to Western Carolina University history professor Elizabeth McRae — partly because King himself was a controversial leader.
“The way we celebrate him today is non-controversial. I think we tend to forget that King was an incredibly controversial figure,” McRae says.
King’s radical economic message, opposition to the Vietnam War, and alleged ties to communism made him a lightning rod for detractors. But his message of social justice, anti-poverty and tolerance eventually usurped all else, and the holiday was successfully passed in Congress.
Today, 95 percent of the counties in North Carolina have a MLK Commission, estimates George Allison, director of the state’s official MLK Commission, which makes Swain County among the last to establish one.
Why is it important for communities to celebrate the holiday and honor the life of its namesake? The answer is different depending on who is asked.
Inabinett admits she knew relatively little about Martin Luther King, Jr. before she became involved with the commission.
“I began to study who he was and his background, and I think I kind of fell in love with the speech he gave in 1964 when he received the Nobel Peace Prize. He basically talked about the fact that we had three challenges to address — racial injustice, war, and poverty. And I started thinking today, are we addressing racial injustice? Are we addressing war? Are we addressing poverty?” Inabinett says.
The purpose of honoring King’s life, Inabinett says, is to also honor his message — and make sure the community is doing all it can to work toward it.
Tyson also says it goes beyond just honoring the life of King.
“I feel like when we are honoring his life, we are also honoring the people who made great sacrifices and the courage it took for them to change the world and to change our country,” she says.
Additionally, King’s message reaches all people, says Allison.
“The reason of the importance of the holiday itself is the issues that he addressed — philosophical, political, you name it, it was for the benefit of all mankind. It was for the good of the total population of America and even beyond,” Allison said.
Time was right
Both Tyson and Inabinett say the commission has so far been well-received.
“Every day I talk to people in this community that tell me their own personal experiences of Dr. King and what his life meant to them,” Tyson said.
“I am seeing Swain County really be supportive of taking a look at how we can be in the 21st century. I see us as very progressive and very forward-thinking. People have stopped me on the street to say how happy they are about (the commission),” Inabinett agreed.
She added that the commission will encourage a dialogue within the community.
“I’m sure that there are plenty of people here in Swain County that think the same way that (King) does about social injustices, about war, and about poverty. I would think it would give us an opportunity to get those kinds of dialogue and discourse going,” Inabinett said.
And to Tyson, the timing couldn’t be better. She points out that this year marks the 40th year since King’s assassination, and this summer the new MLK memorial will open on the National Mall in Washington D.C.
“One of King’s quotes is, ‘the time is always right to do what is right,” Tyson said.