Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
Since 1983, the third Monday in January has been set aside as a federal holiday in the United States in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, but to many, it is much more than just a holiday.
“The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is an official day of service and celebrates the civil rights leader’s life and legacy,” according to AmeriCorps.gov.
Several Fort Leavenworth personnel took that to heart this year.
On Jan. 18, the Leavenworth County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gathered in the south section of Mount Muncie Cemetery in Lansing to clean and decorate 1,388 African-American gravesites with a U.S. flag and a Pan-African flag.
More than 50 volunteers gathered for the event, including several active-duty service members and Department of the Army civilians.
“One of the quotes from Martin Luther King is about serving others, so by serving others we’re actually doing good for our whole community,” said retired Lt. Col. Carmen Elston, Mission Command Capabilities Development and Integration Directorate operations research analyst.
Recently, the initiative for NAACP groups to perform an act of service in honor of the holiday was requested by then-President-elect Joe Biden, said Leavenworth County NAACP Branch Vice President Lt. Col. Joel Elston, Combined Arms Center, G-6, assistant chief of staff.
“For this one, we chose to come out to the predominantly African-American portion of the cemetery to do some beautification and also look at some of the headstones, some of the dates and do some research on the personnel that have passed away and learn about their contributions to society,” Elston said. “We hope that it brings attention to unity, to get away from some of the separation and bring the community together. We have all ages, all ethnicities, all backgrounds out here. Let’s put aside some of the worst parts of society right now and come together and unite on something that’s good.”
Leavenworth County NAACP Branch Assistant Secretary Angie Thomas, Munson Army Health Center medical evaluation section civilian employee, said the gravesites cleaned and decorated include the first African-American lawyer and the first African-American doctor in Leavenworth.
“There’s history that goes back to the early 1800s (in the cemetery),” Thomas said. “You want to know … both sides of the history because it enriches you and gives you knowledge that most people don’t have.
“It’s not just about service on this particular day to me. It’s more about a service to honor this history, to know that these people were here and have such a rich history in this community,” she said. “This is the most humbling thing that you can do is to clean a person’s grave just to show them respect and honor. … Besides being history and learning about someone, you’re honoring a family, somebody’s loved one, and when it’s our turn to pass over, we hope someone will honor us.”
Later in the evening, members gathered via videoteleconference to tell the stories of some of the people buried in the cemetery.
“Legacy, the people before us, they came,” said Lt. Col. Michael Sturdivant, Joint Center for International Security Force Assistance knowledge manager. “What they lived for has given us a privilege to just be able to give this moment of service to them.”