LITTLE ROCK — Raymond Carpenter stood on the steps of the state Capitol on Monday and recalled a visit he made there in the mid-1960s, when blacks were not allowed to eat in the Capitol cafeteria.
Carpenter, a Little Rock native and Georgia lawyer, was the keynote speaker at a Martin Luther King Day ceremony at noon Monday at the Capitol, one of a number of events around the state honoring the slain civil rights leader. The ceremony at the Capitol was organized by the state chapter of the NAACP and was preceded by the annual "marade," a combination march and parade on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Live video from President Obama’s inauguration ceremony in Washington played on a jumbo screen at the state Capitol during the day’s events.
Carpenter was a student at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville when he joined other black college students in marching to the Capitol and trying to eat in the cafeteria in the basement. Initially they were refused.
The cafeteria had been reorganized as a private club in order to circumvent the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The students went to the office of then-Gov. Orval Faubus and asked to be admitted to the cafeteria, and Faubus told them they had to be members of the club to eat there.
"We asked him if we could purchase a membership in the dining hall," Carpenter said. "He said they were fresh out of membership cards."
The students were escorted out of the building by state troopers. They returned the next day and were turned away again. They returned a third time and were admitted, though Carpenter was not present because he had returned to Fayetteville after the second day.
Carpenter, whose clients have included the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, said King’s famous "I Have a Dream" speech included not only that well-known passage but also comments on"the fierce urgency of now," the phrase King used to express his belief that progress on civil rights could not wait.
"It is in that statement on the fierce urgency of now that Dr. King from 1963 connects with President Barack Obama in the year 2013," he said. "If any of you have read President Obama’s book, the fierce urgency of now is a major discussion in his book (‘The Audacity of Hope’)."
Carpenter said King recognized not only the urgency to obtain civil rights but also the urgent need to address economic injustice — a need that he said remains urgent today.
More people are living in poverty now than at any time in the 53 years since the U.S. Census has reported poverty statistics, and the gap between rich and poor also is at its highest level, Carpenter said.
"In 1963, the issue was legal segregation, legal discrimination, legal exclusion. In 2013, the issue is economic deprivation, economic isolation and economic desolation," he said.
Audience members said it was inspiring to be honoring King on the same day that the nation’s first black president was being sworn into office for a second term.
"I am buoyant and very heartened and emboldened that I am still alive and able to personally witness these moments," said J.J. Lacey Jr., 72, of Little Rock.
Other events honoring King Monday included a parade and day of service in Benton; a parade, commemoration ceremony and children’s carnival in Conway; a banquet in Fayetteville; a city-wide cleanup day of service in Jacksonville; a march and program in Jonesboro; and a parade in Pine Bluff.
The holiday in Arkansas also is in observance of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s birthday.