But the unthinkable became reality, and the events of the past year were on the minds of many in the region Monday who joined a national day of service to honor the civil rights giant who was assassinated in 1968.
Kenneth Jackson drove from Baltimore to join his fiancee, Tarah Mitchell of Alexandria, to distribute food, water and toiletries to residents of the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter in Southeast Washington.
“It’s a good day for reflection and to embrace the community aspect of Dr. King’s message,” Jackson said as a DJ played “Lady Marmalade” and a cold wind blustered through the parking lot. “We need to focus on the commonality of the human experience rather than things that divide us.”
Mitchell, an Air Force major, said that for those in a position to help, every day should be an opportunity to do so.
“Especially now, all of us are one paycheck away from being in the same situation as those who we’re helping,” she said. “This last year has been so divisive, and so much has happened to pull people apart. And that’s the polar opposite of what Martin Luther King Jr. wanted.”
The distribution project was one of multiple events organized over the long weekend by Ward 8 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners Salim Adofo and Brittany Cummings. They also arranged block cleanups and voter registration efforts and encouraged constituents to reach out for help with needs not being met by the city.
Adofo said he hoped the events would be a springboard to involve more residents in their community and provide outlets for them to engage in the self-determination championed by King.
“We want to empower the residents here in this primarily Black community and give them an opportunity to engage with their elected officials and have more control over what’s going on in their lives,” Adofo said.
Cummings said the past year has been especially difficult for families in Ward 8. Many feel especially separated from one another and from the community because of barriers created by the coronavirus pandemic and the wave of job losses and economic pain it has triggered.
“We’re really trying to create a bigger sense of connection and make sure that people understand there are opportunities and services available for them to get to the place they want to be,” she said.
As Cummings and Adofo were supervising their project, Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, joined high school volunteers nearby at Martha’s Table in Anacostia to help fill food packages for distribution
“I think it’s so important to remember that Dr. King was killed in large part, I believe, because he was on the verge of bringing together the civil rights movement around racial justice with the fight for economic justice,” Harris said in a statement.
“And when we look at where we are as a country today, when we look at recent events, we know that the fight Dr. King was engaged in is still a fight in America, which is to recognize the connection and to recognize our collective responsibility to address these injustices.”
A few blocks away on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, retired military veterans were painting the cafeteria and creating an outdoor vegetable garden at the Excel Academy, an all-girls K-8 school. They were joined by Denis McDonough, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Among the volunteers was Mary Beth Bruggeman, who spent eight years in the Marines as a combat engineer and is president of The Mission Continues, a national nonprofit organization that connects military veterans to opportunities to continue their service in under-resourced communities. She said she takes inspiration from King’s declaration that “everybody can be great because everybody can serve.”
This year, Bruggeman said, she felt especially motivated because of the recent breach of the U.S. Capitol by a mob that included military veterans.
“What you see happening here is in such stark contrast to what you saw happening at the Capitol a week ago,” she said. “It was very difficult to see veterans who had taken an oath to preserve and protect the Constitution involved in that attack.”
For some volunteers, the opportunity to join others in a safe and socially distant day of service was reassuring following so many months of turmoil.
Tene Lewis, 43, returned to the neighborhood she grew up in on Sunday to pick up litter and help clean up the block. Lewis, who now lives in Montgomery County, brought her 14-year-old daughter, Samia Greene, with her to help.
“It’s important I make sure my community is safe and clean for everyone. Martin Luther King was about community and uplifting and encouraging all of us to be our best self,” Lewis said. “Despite all the turmoil and disruption in our nation’s capital, it’s important to be out here and doing this work.”
Antonio Ferguson, 26, works in finance and on housing programs for low-income residents. He joined Lewis and two dozen volunteers Sunday in Ward 8 as they picked up trash along Southern Avenue. Though he was born more than a quarter-century after King’s death, Ferguson says the legacy of the civil rights leader is right for this time.
“He was able to rally a community of people who were scared and intimidated to fight for their rights. He gave them hope they could do something,” Ferguson said. “That legacy is important here. Not just to keep fighting for rights, but also taking care of your community — whether that’s picking up trash or teaching our youth or whatever way you can help.”