The Original Kingfest kicked off Tuesday at the Pine Bluff Country Club at a joint meeting of the Pine Bluff Rotary Club and the West Pine Bluff Rotary Club.

The Rev. Jesse Turner of the Pine Bluff Interested Citizens for Voter Registration Inc. welcomed Rotarians and others, encouraging them to take part in other Kingfest activities taking place in the lead up to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Monday. The purpose of Kingfest is to honor the legacy of the late King through racial harmony and service projects.

“This is Pine Bluff: the only city in Arkansas that has a Martin Luther King Park with a Coretta Scott King center inside the park,” Turner said. “We remarried Martin Luther King and his wife. As far as I know, there is not another like that in the United States of America. Pine Bluff is the only city where the original Kingfest brought together Jews, Muslims and Christians in 2002, immediately following the 9/11 incident that happened in New York. We are the only city in Arkansas that did that. … Pine Bluff is a city on the move.”

Turner introduced Roland Watley, who also discussed the legacy of King.

“Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of faith, work, love, and most of all service,” Roland Watley said. “He believed that everyone had the power for greatness, not for fame, because greatness is determined by service. The man I stand before you to present walked in that greatness with power and strength not because he is my son or because he was a stellar student or a college athlete.”

Roland Watley introduced his son, Ryan Watley, the chief executive officer of Go Forward Pine Bluff, a voter-approved public-private economic revitalization project. He said he his proud of his son for his own service.

“In addition to all the achievements he has a passion for serving meals on Christmas day to low-income families,” Roland Watley said. “Nine years later, he has served over 3,600 meals.”

Ryan Watley said he expected to discuss Go Forward exclusively and was asked to discuss Kingfest a few minutes before taking the podium. While he was not born until after the civil rights era had ended, Ryan Watley said he believes the spirit of racial harmony is a goal to be achieved in every generation. Ryan Watley said he believes great progress has been made toward achieving King’s dream yet also thinks progress needs to be made.

“To be mentioned in the same sentence as Dr. King is a lot,” he said.

“I do believe that inequalities among race still exists to this day, and I can relate to that somewhat. However, when you talk about the civil rights movement, it was a perilous time in our country where hatred and humiliation was real and it was in your face. It was something that people had to deal with every day. Even given those circumstances, the hope for more civil engagement with economic prosperity for all preserved, which allows us to assemble in this room today. And for that I am thankful to Dr. King and all who participated in that movement.”

Ryan Watley asked the guests to honor King’s legacy by giving him a standing ovation and they complied.

King was murdered in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to support the rights of that city’s sanitation workers who were asking for better working conditions and compensation. He was 39 years old. King rose to national prominence in the 1950s as a Baptist preacher. He gave many speeches including his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. in 1963 in which he dreamed of a world in which people judged each other by the content of their character, rather than by the color of their skin.

King rose to prominence through his leadership with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

For a complete list of Kingfest activities, please see page 2A in the Commercial each day.