KINGSPORT — On April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, an event that sent shock waves across the country and the world.
Now, 53 years later, local churches are coming together to honor his legacy. Community members are invited to a Ringing of the Bells service Sunday evening, which will include prayer and reading from King’s speeches.
“We are trying to commemorate and remember Dr. King,” said Ronnie Collins, one of the organizers of the event. “We celebrate the holiday, which is his birthday, but we very seldom do anything relative to when he was assassinated.”
The outdoor service will be held from 6-7:01 p.m. at Mafair United Methodist Church, located at 1409 E. Center St. The service will begin with prayer, followed by excerpts from King’s speeches. At 7:01 p.m. — the time of King’s assassination in Eastern Time — bells will be rung 39 times to represent King’s age at the time of his death.
Aside from Mafair, three other churches have already made plans to participate. First Presbyterian Church and St. Luke United Methodist Church will ring their bells, while St. Mark United Methodist Church will join Mafair to ring the bell at that church.
Children in attendance will also be given hand bells to ring at the same time.
Attendees should practice social distancing and wear masks, Collins added. Other churches are invited either to join the event at Mafair or ring bells at their own facilities.
“We’re always happy to commemorate Dr. King,” said Adam Love, pastor of Mafair United Methodist Church. “We’re happy to be invited, happy we can offer space and do what we can to host this and to be part of it.”
How it came together
Johnnie Mae Swagerty, director of New Vision Youth and head organizer of the service, said she was first encouraged to organize the event by someone from Elizabethton, which has held similar services.
“This is what Martin Luther King wanted: everybody to come together and fill your hearts with love, peace and unity,” Swagerty said. “By having this bell ringing, this brings peace to everybody, and then with the churches participating and ringing bells, they’re saying that all churches in the community can come together.”
Honoring a legacy
Since she first started to plan the service, Swagerty said people have been eager to join in and honor King’s legacy. She added that she hopes the event will continue in the future, but with a board of church leaders at the helm.
“In all that we do, especially for myself for the last 20-some years with the parades and the marches for Dr. King, our theme has always been love,” Collins said. “This is an opportunity where we can come together and commemorate a great man — not just a great Black man, but a great man, a great American who made such an impact.”