Sunny and warm. It was the kind of weather organizers of New Braunfels’ annual march commemorating the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday would pray for on Monday.

Instead of being shut in by the coronavirus, New Braunfelsers turned out as one of thousands of communities across the United States that meshed live and virtual components to honor the slain civil rights leader’s 92nd birthday.

“To me, last year was the pinnacle of all of our activities — with the Herblock exhibit and the six venues, Soul Sessions performing and 2,500 people out marching — then COVID hit,” said Susan Tate of the New Braunfels MLK Association, which had to do it differently this year. “How can we top what we did last year?”

Several service-dedicated events preceded Monday’s MLK virtual program, broadcast through Facebook at the organization’s website, and hosted by Bishop Michael D. Franklin, MLK Association president, who opened by addressing recent events.

“The New Braunfels MLK Association goes on record that it condemns in the strongest terms all seditious acts,” he said. “We are affirmed the rights of all citizens of the United States to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. We condemn the use of these freedoms to intimidate, invoke fear, and enact violence against any person or private property.

“We stand against those who encourage such violent and deplorable actions. As well as those whose rhetoric encourages and empowers such behaviors.”

Oakwood Church Pastor Ray Still’s invocation and New Braunfels Mayor Rusty Brockman’s welcome urged unity.

“I know it will be a great celebration next year, when we’re walking across the bridge and celebrating at the Main Plaza in New Braunfels — I’m really looking forward to that day,” Still said. “But Dr. King once said that darkness cannot be driven out by darkness. Only light can do that. He said that hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that. We thank you for this day and for what it means to peace loving people everywhere.”

COVID-19 might have shifted the presentation, but didn’t diminish the message.

“Unfortunately during these times we have to do these events virtually,” Brockman said. “Martin Luther King Jr., born in 1929, would have been 92 years old this year. But in 1968, his important life, to all Americans, was cut short. We celebrate the work that he did, along with many others in the civil rights movement.”

Brockman praised the NBMLK, its leaders and “all the many other members that have made the organization a meaningful and important group to work together to make change happen.

“As mayor, I want to encourage you to continue doing the important work you are committed to doing, and want you to know that I and the City Council and city staff and citizens of this great community stand together with you and as a community work together as Americans.”

Featured speakers included Gregory Hudspeth, San Antonio NAACP branch president, and Renee Watson, chair of the San Antonio MLK Commission. Others scheduled to appear were the University of Texas-San Antonio Voices in Praise, Soul Session and the male chorus from Resurrection Baptist Church. 

“The virtual program was wonderful and brought everything together. We went beyond the city limits to bring the message to other places inside and outside of New Braunfels,” added Tate, who estimated more than 4,000 tuned into the 1½ hour podcast. 

The message was spread to other places throughout the area. Smaller events raised money for food banks and taught children the true meaning of inclusion. 

“We had two outdoors events which brought members of our community together but safely distanced,” said Pam Sullivan of Vintage Oaks area activities. “Children gathered on a trail in our neighborhood to paint rocks with symbols and messages of love, equality, unity and acceptance. And, through the efforts of a dozen or more volunteers, we held a drive-thru bake sale that raised more than $1,500 to benefit the New Braunfels Food Bank.

“I’m so proud of my neighbors who participated and generously donated to this important event during such a difficult time in our country. We are honored to work with and support the New Braunfels MLK Association. Our New Braunfels community is extremely fortunate to have their leadership, love, and attentive connection to our city.”

Aja Edwards, former New Braunfels City Council Member, said Riverside Pride held similar events dedicated to Dr. King’s messages of equality and inclusion.

“We had about 20 people show up (Sunday) to paint rocks and make posters to put on the plaza and raised $220 and bags of food for the food bank,” she said. “MLK was all about feeding the poor, which is why we combined the food drive with the art.”

Also helping were the New Braunfels Police Department, which also purchased signs promoting King’s dream.

“It shows that our PD supports those messages,” Edwards said.

Edwards is president of Riverside Pride, a non-profit dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community in New Braunfels and the surrounding area. The organization’s mission is to make everyone feel safe anywhere they call home, and provides resources toward that end.

“Because of the socio-political climate, we dedicated ourselves to being more active in the community, especially the African American community here in New Braunfels,” she said. 

Edwards is a member of the city’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Awareness community forum, which the city hopes to create a positive dialogue on race relations.

“I feel like it’s a great first step in the right direction,” she said. “But as we continue I hope it becomes an action plan where we start seeing real change instead of it being another committee for committee sakes.

“I don’t think it will become that — I think we can see some real action come out of it.”

Tate said many came to help Franklin, who is recovering from a recent illness, produce the NBMLK’s web show.

If Bishop Franklin was to do it he had to have all people help – and he had a lot of cooperation from people to put this together,” she said. “While this year’s event was different than a physical marc, it also proved the MLK Association is here to stay in New Braunfels.

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