By Callie Hietala
The Rev. Tyler Millner has set out on a mission: to encourage people to celebrate—actively celebrate—the upcoming Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.
The day, Millner said, is about much more than just time off from work. Spending it sleeping in or going shopping, he said, is doing a disservice to the man the holiday honors. Rather, the day should be spent honoring King’s teachings and committing or recommitting to continuing the work begun by King and his contemporaries.
The movement lead by King “significantly impacts all of our lives,” he said, “and is still relevant” mainly because many of the issues King fought for “are not solved, like race, like equality for women, like equal pay, like voting. All those things that King was involved in.”
Millner, pastor of Morning Star Holy Church, said the holiday is unique.
It is “a fantastic opportunity to be reminded, to be inspired, and to say, ‘I’m going to commit to the unfinished work’” of Dr. King and those who worked and marched alongside him. “No other holiday has that kind of capacity,” he said.
Millner has a long history of community organizing to honor King, and he has collections of materials—books, posters, photos, and more—which he displays at his church on Stony Mountain Road in Axton. He hopes to share these, as well as his own knowledge, stories, and experiences, with members of the community who are interested in learning how they can more fully honor King’s legacy, both during the holiday and after.
In an earlier chapter of his life, Millner was the president of the Richmond Committee of Black Clergy, an alliance of Black pastors in Richmond, VA, who encouraged each other to continue improving both as pastors and as community leaders. The year King was assassinated, Millner said the organization sponsored a worship service in honor of his life and legacy.
After several years of the service, Millner felt that something more needed to be done.
“I said, ‘look, King was more than worship, more than religion,” Millner said, and in 1978, he and the committee partnered with Dr. Grace Pleasants and Virginia Union University, a historically Black university in Richmond, to lay the foundations of Community Learning Week.
“From there forward, we had a whole week providing the opportunity for the community” to learn about King, anchored at Virginia Union, Millner recalled.
The weeklong event, which included workshops, forums, religious services, and cultural events, was in its eighth year by the time Martin Luther King, Jr. Day officially became a holiday. Such was its success that Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, helped kick off the 1983 celebration.
Millner said the week included an annual Community Leaders Breakfast that is currently celebrating its 44th year at the college. The idea behind the breakfast was to draw leaders together — corporate executives, politicians, presidents of major organizations — and invite a “major speaker, with reputation” to deliver a charge to those leaders and encourage them to “keep up with the likeness of King.”
For nearly 20 years, “we commanded the presence of the governor at the breakfast,” he said.
Over time, the week expanded and encompassed more events, including a mass meeting modeled on those held by King. Millner explained that King would host such meetings to keep the public up to date on the progress of the Civil Rights movement and identify the next steps.
Millner recalled that Shirley Chisholm, the nation’s first Black congresswoman, attended Community Learning Week’s first mass meeting.
“I got 12 invitations to speak. Something told me to come to Richmond,” Millner said Chisholm told him. From that first event onward, Millner said these re-envisioned mass meetings became a “premier platform” that attracted mayors, authors, governors, and other prominent figures.
Millner hopes Community Learning Week can serve as a model for similar events locally, and he is happy to share his knowledge and experience with those interested in learning about King’s teachings and how they can honor his legacy.
The holiday, for Millner, is a way to “remind ourselves, educate ourselves, but then commit and say ‘I am going to be part of the work that is going to finish the dream.’”
Finishing the dream to Millner is achieving King’s vision for what he called the Beloved Community, defined by The King Center (thekingcenter.org) as “a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger, and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry, and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.”
Millner believes that everyone has an obligation to work toward this ideal.
“If Martinsville had the Beloved Community,” Millner said, “everybody would be represented and looked after, not just the special interests and the well-connected. Let the government work for people like me and the marginalized and the poor like it does for everybody else. That, to me, is the mark of the Beloved Community.”
He emphasized this call to action is not directed toward only the Black community or the church community, but to all, regardless of race or creed. In fact, Millner sees the universality of King’s teachings as a boon to the movement.
“I think that’s part of why the movement can be reenergized, because there are so many young people with a sense that this is wrong and with a sense that we must do something. I don’t think a lot of them got that because they were in a church,” Millner said.
He hopes others not only take time to educate themselves about King and take action to carry on his torch, but that they will pass his story on to their children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews so that they, too, may pick up and carry the torch.
“But if you take a day off, go out shopping, then (the young people) won’t have that connection,” he warned. “I can show you what can be done. Just come out here to Stoney Mountain Road and I can show you what can be done.”
Millner encouraged residents to celebrate King’s memory by fanning the flames the civil rights leader helped to ignite.
“The holiday can be a way to shake us out of apathy, provide a level of sensitivity, and provide an awareness that there’s still a long way to go,” he said, and added that now, more than ever, he sees an urgent need for people to become actively engaged in fighting for social reforms.
“Why? Because of what time it is. The racial unrest, the continuing killing of Black and brown people, the banning of books, the assault on our democratic principles, the assault on voting rights,” he said. “You and me, we don’t have anything to do?
“King is not here,” Millner said, “and so I must get up, get on the marching, get on the walking, and become part of the army that finishes the dream.”
To view the collection of King memorabilia, or to discuss ways to honor and celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day may contact Millner at (276) 650-8755 or email@example.com.