CHEYENNE — Martin Luther King Jr.’s world-altering career of activism is perhaps best remembered for his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963.
Those words still resonate with Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, including Air Force Academy Chaplain Col. Julian Gaither, who was the keynote speaker for Cheyenne’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration Monday afternoon in Cheyenne.
Near the front steps of the Wyoming Capitol, Gaither connected the dots in terms of how King’s words, actions and struggle impacted his own life trajectory, and how “powerful” the ability to dream is. As a highly successful, college-educated military chaplain, Gaither attributed the blessings in his own life to the vision of his parents and those who came before them.
“I stand here, not only as a dreamer. But I stand today as one who is a manifestation of grandmothers and grandfathers, of mothers and fathers who have dreamed that their children do anything in this nation, and in this world,” Gaither said. “And while I am the manifestation, I am also a dreamer. Because I dream the same for my children, I dream the same for your children, and I dream the same for all of God’s children.”
Still, Gaither said, “That dream cannot become a reality unless we continue to act.”
More than 100 residents gathered in front of the Capitol in the cold and wind Monday to help keep King’s vision alive, and to pass along his lessons of love and kindness to the next generations. But the MLK Jr. Day celebration itself serves as an example of why consistent commitment to equality is important for change.
Organized by Mercedes Brooks-Hunt, this year’s event was dedicated to the late Liz Byrd, The Equality State’s first Black, female lawmaker. She started her term in the Wyoming House of Representatives in 1981 before becoming the first African American lawmaker in the Senate in ‘89, lowering the barriers for Black women who will follow in her footsteps.
The journey to the Capitol wasn’t easy for Byrd, who was denied admittance to the University of Wyoming as segregation was in full swing. She had to travel out of state for college before returning to Cheyenne and paving her own career path; according to WyoHistory.org, her position with Laramie County School District 1 made her the first fully certified, full-time Black teacher in Wyoming before she became a lawmaker.
Still, perhaps one of the most important legacies left by Byrd in Wyoming is the celebration of MLK Jr. Day. Byrd worked tirelessly for about a decade to get her fellow lawmakers to recognize King’s birthday as a state holiday, finally reaching an agreement in 1991 to declare the third Monday in January “Wyoming Equality Day.”
Byrd's accomplishments in the face of adversity continue to inspire Wyomingites who chase King's dream of equality, and her successes were the dream of the women who went before her.
At the celebration, Brooks-Hunt said, “All three of my children graduated from the University of Wyoming, and it’s because of those people like Liz Byrd ... grandmothers, great-grandmothers who stood on the steps and paved the way for us to get a good education, to march like we’re marching and standing today.”
And while older generations lived through the civil rights movement and experienced the turmoil after King’s assassination, kids these days learn about MLK Jr. in textbooks and in the classroom. For Kat Fiore, who brought along six of her seven kids, the celebration was the perfect opportunity to remind her children why they have the day off from school.
“They’re the next generation of leaders; they’re going to be the ones making the changes,” Fiore said. “I want them to see that change is possible, that they don't just have to follow what everybody else lives by or the way that things have always been. That’s really what I want them to take away – they can make a difference in the world.”