By the dozens, people marched down Park Avenue - their heads held high and voices lifted - carrying the tune of a civil rights protest song. "We shall overcome," the words resounded, and while the context of those marching voices has changed through the years, the message has not.
As part of an annual memorial service and commemorative march to the Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Paducah, area leaders and community members put one foot in front of the other Monday, symbolically representing how far the country has come and still how far it has to go.
J.W. Cleary, president of the Paducah chapter of the NAACP, said the annual memorial events for King honor the strides and sacrifice of the civil rights leader and help keep his message and legacy pertinent with younger generations.
"We feel like Dr. King truly made a difference for the nation. He came at a time when there was racism, and African-Americans and white Americans fighting among one another, so what he did was really help bring these groups together. And by doing these events, we pass that (message) on to our young folks," Cleary said.
"If nothing else, we have to learn to work together as brothers and sisters. We can't look at a person's skin color and take the attitude that they're less fortunate, but instead what can I do to make a difference?"
Marchers placed a wreath at the site of the King memorial - where Park Avenue merges with Martin Luther King Jr. Drive - that will remain in place through the end of February. Both civic and faith leaders also offered sentiments that equality in all walks of life continues to progress in today's society.
"Freedom is not easily won, and we must always be diligent because freedom can be taken away from us at any time," Mayor Gayle Kaler said. "Not only is it hard won, but you have to fight hard to keep those freedoms that (King) made sure we had today."
Following the march, people gathered at the Robert Cherry Civic Center for a memorial luncheon where Kaler recognized Mary Pettus-Rowland, a Paducah funeral home director, with the Mayor's Award of Merit, citing her years of compassionate work within the community.
This year's keynote speaker, the Rev. Joe Beal of Broadway United Methodist Church, echoed the challenge set forth that Martin Luther King Jr. Day be recognized as a "day on" as opposed to a "day off," encouraging people toward a day of service as opposed to a simple holiday.
Beal stressed not all areas of King's dream have been realized, but significant strides have moved the country forward.
"I don't think we pay enough attention to that: Acknowledging that we may not be where we need to be, but our country has come a mighty long way," Beal said. "The negative stories and events overshadow too often the good that takes place in this country. I want to remind us that, 'yeah, there's still a ways to go,' but a lot of progress has been made in the 50 years since."
Contact Will Pinkston, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8676 or follow @WCPinkston on Twitter.
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