The MLK Martyr Day Commemoration luncheon was held April 4, the 55th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Participants and attendees included local pastors, activists, officials, community leaders and other members of the community. COURTESY MLK OBSERVANCE COMMITTEE

On April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

On April 4, 2023, leaders and community members honored the 55th anniversary of his death with a commemoration luncheon in Bluffton.

The luncheon was the first of a series of events hosted by the Bluffton MLK Observance Committee April 4-8 with the theme of “Together, We Can Be the Dream.”

From the luncheon to a soup kitchen to a community forum on race and education, the week focused on continuing the good work of community building, as encouraged by Dr. King.

Toward that goal, on April 6, a private pop-up kitchen provided lunch for public works and sanitation workers, two groups near and dear to the heart of Dr. King.

Later that evening, the committee held a community forum on the topic “Race and Education: Post-Brown vs. Board of Education and the 1965 Civil Rights Act.”

The observance week was scheduled to close with a Gullah Market April 8 at the Heyward House Common Ground.

Aaron Jenkins, a board member of the Bluffton MLK Observance Committee, began the Inaugural MLK Martyr Day luncheon with a reminder that Dr. King’s death sparked renewed calls for nonviolence.

The event, sponsored by the committee, included remarks from local pastors, activists, officials and singers. There were also honored guests who received the first “We Can Be the Dream Social Justice Advocate” awards following the speakers.

Bridgette Frazier, chair of the committee, presented the 2023 awards to Billy and Brenda Watterson from the Watterson Family Foundation; Alison Bonner and Amanda Denmark from the nonprofit Save the Shutters; and Taiwan Scott, an advocate for the African American community on Hilton Head Island and a political activist.

“Everyone came out today with the hope that with our vision and all of our events, that you hear something that will spark that desire for you the call to action, because it takes us in order to effect the change we wish to see in our community,” said Frazier. “And as Dr. King said, you don’t have to be great to serve, but serving does bring about great actions.”

Frazier noted that the award recipients were selected for their actions, “not because they’ve been tasked or asked to do so, but because it was in them to look at their community to not just complain about a problem, but to set out and endeavor to actually address the problem.” 

The Watterson Family Foundation responded to COVID-19 in partnership with the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce with an idea called Help 4 Hope, an initiative that used charitable donations not only to provide meals to those in need, but to keep money flowing into local restaurants during the shutdown. 

The initiative raised $250,000 and served as a Lowcountry introduction to a force for positive change. The contributions began going to organizations such as Deep Well, the First Tee in the Lowcountry, Community Foundation of a Lowcountry, Teed up for the Troops, Black Equity, the Literacy Center, the Bluffton MLK Observance Committee, Bluffton Self Help and the Mitchellville Preservation Project.

In his remarks, Watterson said he realized that people in his position have a really rare opportunity to step into a space and do things that others can’t. 

“We have a lot of work to do, but every one of us can do it. I will tell you the time for talking is over. When we work together, I can’t tell you how beautiful things are when we work together,” he said. “And when we come together, black and white, men and women, children of God, it is unreal how beautiful the outcome.”

Bonner and Denmark started Save the Shutters when someone told them of a family in need. The family had a tree fall on their house during a recent hurricane and, in the process of doing those repairs, found numerous other issues that needed correcting.

“We are not in the days anymore where you just make repairs to your home without going through certain permitting processes and getting certain reports and engineering information,” said Frazier in her introduction. “But it was them recognizing that instead of finding somebody else to fix the problem, they identified a problem and said, ‘Well, why can’t we do it?’”

Bonner and Denmark are architects with the firm of Pearce Scott Architects. With their knowledge and network, they brought in other partners in the trade and it became a community effort that saved the family’s home. 

Now, Save the Shutters is looking for other residents who have exhausted all of their resources and are in need of additional help to be able to stay in their home.

“Save the Shutters works with teams of volunteers in the community to pool resources, time, donations and kindness to make this goal achievable,” said Bonner. “It’s labor and material, love and community, and that’s what this is all about. We want to help our neighbors and we want them to stay where they are. We are lucky enough to know a lot of people and different partners that can help fill those gaps that other people don’t know. We’re just excited to be able to help people.”

Although unable to attend, the third recipient was Hilton Head Island resident Taiwan Scott, a real estate agent and entrepreneur. Scott was recognized for being an advocate for advancing opportunities for African Americans in business and housing. 

When he ran into overwhelming roadblocks for his own enterprise, he made his presence known through attendance at town council meetings and organizing a five-year-long protest. That resulted in the Town of Hilton Head Island forming a task force that would examine a variety of problems and concerns affecting residents on the island. 

Frazier noted that today the task force has more than 30 agenda items to work through. Scott told Frazier that subdividing property and establishing new business enterprises has become easier.

Scott earned more recognition in his fight against gerrymandering. A federal court ordered South Carolina to redraw its 2021 congressional maps, ruling that Congressional District 1, anchored in Charleston County and other areas, were racially gerrymandered. The case was brought on behalf of the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, and one individual voter, Taiwan Scott, who was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. 

Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka said that the day’s program was a great way to celebrate King. 

“He was the bridge builder. He spoke his belief and he wasn’t afraid. And he stood up for people. That’s what this town does,” said Sulka. “So ask yourself if there are one or two people you can help, and let’s just remember what Martin Luther King stood for and be proud that we can be a force for our residents in our town and our county and our region.”

Bluffton Police Chief Joe Babkiewicz said that King was assassinated by a man with hate in his heart and prejudice,

“Let us not remember him, but just remember MLK,” said Babkiewicz. “It’s not how he died that made him a hero. It’s how Martin Luther King Jr. lived his life dedicated to equality, justice, and love. … I’m proud to say his values will always be installed within our police department.”

Kathleen Hughes, chair of the Beaufort County Democratic Party, commented about service to community.

“Bridgette understands more than most that everyone can be great because everyone can serve. To quote Dr. King, life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ That’s a value that most of us here live by,” said Hughes. 

Recalling a speech King wrote and delivered to Stanford University in 1967, Pastor Eddie Patten from St. James Baptist Church said he brought about eight issues that really pressed America then, and many will find that it still presses America today. 

“One of the greatest things that still pressing America today is that there is a race problem in 2023,’ Patten said. “Martin Luther King began to say to us that there are two Americas. One is beautiful America that is flowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity. … And yet in this other America, there is a daily ugliness that persists.” Patten cited unsafe housing, impoverished communities, educational inequities and discrimination as among the issues. 

Today, there are still two Americas,” Patten continued. “Martin Luther King began to say to us, even in the midst of the two Americas, that we look for a nation that is one nation that is indivisible, that is standing for liberty and justice for all.” 

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.