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Area civil rights activists focus on the future as they mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Jabari Blakemore and Anna Murrary Robinson, of the Carnahan High School drum line lead a Martin Luther King Jr. Day march from Wellston to Pine Lawn. Jan. 15, 2017
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
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Jabari Blakemore and Anna Murrary Robinson, of the Carnahan High School drum line lead a Martin Luther King Jr. Day march from Wellston to Pine Lawn.

Almost 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, the key focus of area civil rights leaders is to keep the national leader’s legacy — and message — alive for a new generation.

Which helps explain why state Rep. Bruce Franks, D-St. Louis, sought to rev up Monday’s annual event at the Old Courthouse to mark King’s birthday. Amid all the songs and speeches, Franks focused on the importance of action.

Shouting into the mic, Franks whipped up the crowd with some of the chants that have epitomized more protests over a judge’s decision in September not to charge a St. Louis police officer in a 2011 shooting of an African-American man.

“Say, ‘I know that we will win!’” shouted Franks, who quickly got the crowd of several hundred to follow suit.

If King were still alive, Franks said, “he’d be out with the SEIU workers while they’re on strike’’ against a Ferguson nursing home.

Attendees at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. Jan. 15, 2018
Credit Jo Mannies | St. Louis Public Radio
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Several hundred people attended Monday's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

Franks’ pitch was undisputedly the loudest, but also was part of a broader effort by numerous speakers to educate the young on why they should care about the civil rights movement and those who have spent their lives on the front lines.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill chose to focus on the legacy of Frankie Freeman, a St. Louis-based civil rights lawyer who spent her adult life battling injustice — some of which was directed at her.

The Democrat told the crowd to read up on Freeman, who died Friday at the age of 101.  Among other things, the senator recounted a bus trip that Freeman took to rural Missouri for a case. Freeman wasn’t allowed to use the restroom or the restaurant at a bus stop along the way.

“As a black woman in the '40s, trying to find her place, to seek justice in the courts, that was an amazing story,’’ McCaskill said afterwards. “That’s really what this day is about. In my opinion, it’s about people like Frankie Freeman, who took their cue from Martin Luther King to never give up.”

Dwaun Warmack, president of Harris-Stowe State University, exhorted young people to get educated and stay committed. He said African-Americans need to take advantage of any educational opportunities, which Warmack said are key to getting ahead.

“Dr. King said, if we can’t fly, then run. If we can’t run, then walk,” Warmack said. “If we can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever we do, keep moving forward.”

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson pledged to the crowd that she would continue to fight for equality. Mike McMillan, president and chief executive of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, enthusiastically praised the mayor for her recent decisions to hire former Judge Jimmie Edwards as the city’s public safety director, and John Hayden as the new chief of police.

Several speakers called on young African-Americans — especially young men — to pay attention to their family responsibilities, and stay out of trouble. Edwards noted that black men made up the majority of the city’s crime victims, and suspects, in 2017.

“That’s a problem that’s on us,’’ Edwards said.

And Lewis Reed, president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, said challenges certainly remain. Reed said he was stunned by a Tweet he saw Monday from a man who wrote, “The Civil War is over, I don’t get it. What are ‘they’ still fighting for?”

“The Civil War may be over,’’ Reed observed. “But the war on our civil rights certainly isn’t over.”

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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