CHEYENNE—Monday afternoon, Wyomingites marched as one in memory of civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Residents of many nationalities gathered inside the Cheyenne Depot to escape the cold Wyoming wind.
When JROTC members stepped outside, falling into ranks, those preparing to march followed behind them. Among the crowd were public figures like Mayor Patrick Collins, Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder and recently elected Laramie County Sheriff Brian Kozak.
The Cheyenne Police Department and Laramie County Sheriff’s Office worked together to clear traffic on Capitol Avenue, leading the way for marchers to travel roughly 1,200 yards to reach the front of the Wyoming State Capitol.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day ultimately comes to be about many things, with this year focused on recognizing Cheyenne’s local military members. However, leaders and speakers emphasized one concept among the rest—unity in a time of division.
That’s why many agreed there was no better person to speak on the steps of the Capitol than Chief Master Sgt. Sylvestris Hlongwane, the first African American woman to serve as command chief for the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base.
“If Dr. King were still alive today, I can only imagine the additional contributions that he would have made to our country and our society,” Hlongwane said. “Through our actions, to treat each other with equality and dignity, and our striving to remember our history so that we are not doomed to repeat—he is in everything that we do.”
Though speakers touched on this concept and the importance of the holiday on Monday, some of the most powerful testimony occurred the afternoon before at Second Baptist Church.
”A Dream of Living in Unity”
This wasn’t a regular church service. The crowd lining the pews within the small church on 2408 Snyder Ave. was especially diverse and lively. Strangers and well-acquainted friends greeted each other and introduced themselves to one another before honoring the memory of Dr. King.
Special guests and pastors from other churches in Cheyenne came together to speak about the significance of the day, placing emphasis on the religious connections buried within the history of civil rights in the United States.
More than anything else, there was an undercurrent—and at times direct addressing—of acknowledging our differences in race, religion, lifestyle and nationality to come together and create a more unified community.
The event itself seemed to do just that. Leaders from Mount Sinai Congregation, First United Methodist Church, Highlands Presbyterian Church, St. Peter’s Anglican Church and the Northern Arapahoe Tribe all were in attendance.
Along with a variety of uplifting gospel songs, three children from the congregation stood to recite Dr. King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech in its entirety to cheers and “amens” from the congregation.
The crowd also heard from Mayor Collins and Sheriff Kozak, as well as Monica Jennings-Woodard, who recited a poem she wrote for the event.
“They marched,” the poem read. “Their offspring, our brothers and sisters, stood together through epic weather, believing that even if their eyes never witnessed the fruits of their labor, their children, our children, our mothers and fathers, will carry on the dream that for centuries before he was born, paid homage to.”
The keynote speaker, traveling up from Denver, came to control the room. Bishop Acen L. Phillips, who marched on Selma, Alabama, beside Dr. King, was friends with him for 10 years until his death in 1968.
“Dr. King had a dream. One of the challenges we have today, one of the reasons we have the complicity we have today, is because we keep talking about Dr. King’s dream,” Phillips said. “Dreaming is something you’re supposed to do at night. You can’t do much while you’re dreaming.
“But I want to get you to come out of the dream—you ain’t never gonna have no unity by dreaming about it. You need to crystalize your dream into reality.”
Phillips urged those in attendance to be active in their pursuits, rather than live complacent in their ideals. He used the homeless—or “houseless” crisis, as he referred to it—as an example.
Many acknowledge the homeless population along the Front Range, but there’s no one building a place for them to stay, he said. Phillips went a step further in addressing how when housing is built in the region, it’s hardly ever affordable to the section of the population that needs it the most.
An act of crystalizing a dream would be opening all churches as housing for the homeless.
He also encouraged those in attendance not to be distracted by what divides us. It’s up to every individual—and, as an extension, the community—to make the change.
“We get angry because we don’t want God to love bad folk. We don’t want him to bless everybody the same way,” Phillips said. “He said, ‘I’m not the God of the daylight—I’m the God of the daylight and the dark.’”
A large group of people bunched up in front of the Capitol on Monday, some drifting away as the event continued. The Junior ROTC had finished their march, retired the color guard and retreated to ranks on East 24th Street.
A set of metal chairs were placed in rows to accommodate public figures in attendance, including Gov. Mark Gordon. The rest of the parade’s attendees crowded around the Wyoming State seal and watched Municipal Judge Ronn Jeffrey take the podium to begin the brief event.
“I could think about all the bad things that have gone on in this country, and all the things that make me go, ‘Where are we going to go next?’” Jeffrey said, pointing into the crowd. “Then I look up and I see a face. I look at a face like that young man’s face, or a face like that young man over there.
“I say to myself, ‘We are here. We are now. And if we want to change things, we are the one’s who will make that change.”
Gordon took the podium, as well, paying tribute to the late Liz Byrd, the first African American woman to serve in Wyoming’s Legislature. He recalled how she would distribute American flags to the men and women who had just passed their citizenship tests.
Ultimately, he connected the importance of the day to strive for the unity of Wyoming residents going forward.
To conclude the speech, Gordon signed a proclamation that declared Jan. 16, 2023, as “King Equality Day of Service.”
After signing the document, Gordon stepped back and raised his voice to an enthusiastic response from the crowd.
“We all came here on different boats, but now we’re in the same boat,” the governor said. “It is always the right time to do the right thing. So in Wyoming, we’re gonna do the right thing, we’re gonna do it the right way, and we’re gonna do it right away.”