MLK Day of Service 2021

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Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s MLK Day of Service

By Katie Fagan, AmeriCorps Member, Black Warrior Riverkeeper

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” In 1994, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day became a national day encouraging people to honor his commitment to service through our own with “a day ON, not a day OFF”. It is in this spirit that Black Warrior Riverkeeper teamed up with Cahaba Riverkeeper and some amazing volunteers of all ages and backgrounds to clean up Shadow Lawn Memorial Park on Saturday, January 16.

Photo of Riverkeeper volunteers at Shadow Lawn Memorial Park by Ibukun Afon, graduate student, UAB.

Shadow Lawn Memorial Park is a historically Black cemetery located in Birmingham, next to Elmwood Cemetery. The cemetery was founded in 1889 and extends across 40-acres to provide a resting place for almost 40,000 people, making it the largest historically Black cemetery in Birmingham, according to the Birmingham Public Library Database. Among those interred there are former slaves, civil rights activists, veterans of many wars, and even Dolphus T. Shields, the great-great grandfather of Michelle Obama.

Photo of John Lanier addressing Riverkeeper volunteers by Ibukun Afon, graduate student, UAB.

Mr. John Lanier, the financial officer of Shadow Lawn Memorial Gardens Maintenance and Perpetual Care Association, spoke to our volunteers about this rich history during our cleanup on Saturday. Still, just by looking at the cemetery one might fail to appreciate its legacy. The area is extremely overgrown and is in need of more attention. After its owners filed for bankruptcy in 2000, the cemetery was left abandoned until Shadow Lawn Memorial Gardens Maintenance and Perpetual Care Association, a volunteer organization, stepped in. Despite the work of the Association, without consistent support from outside organizations or the city the cost to maintain the cemetery is prohibitive. In just one morning our hardworking volunteers managed to remove 475.5 pounds of trash from the area.

Photo of Riverkeeper Volunteers after MLK Day cleanup by Katie Fagan, AmeriCorps Member, Black Warrior Riverkeeper.

In addition to the historical importance of this cemetery, the park contains a portion of Nabors Branch. This stream flows into Valley Creek and then into Black Warrior River and all the way down the Tombigbee River to Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Therefore, our cleanup made a positive impact beyond this immediate area, including the downstream habitats of multiple endangered species. This cleanup was a lovely example, if on a smaller scale, of what Martin Luther King, Jr. was talking about in his 1967 Christmas sermon when he said, “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…”.

Dr. King promoted a kind of public service that took into consideration the injustices that keep us apart and the acts that can bring us together. In King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, he said “A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

I want to sincerely thank everyone who joined us on Saturday for a day of service, as well as all the other volunteers out there who are dedicating their time, talent, and treasure to make a positive difference in their community. The work of nonprofits, like Black Warrior Riverkeeper, would not be possible without your support.

If you are interested in becoming more involved with Black Warrior Riverkeeper, please check out our website or contact Charles Scribner at [email protected].

To get involved at Shadow Lawn Memorial Park you can contact John Lanier at 205-533-3502 or [email protected].

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