The life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. will take center stage at The Mall in Columbia today in a memorial event intended to evoke the spirit of the slain civil rights leader.
The Howard County Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission is sponsoring the free celebration from noon to 4 p.m. in the mall's center stage area. The Howard County Children's Chorus, Mount View Jazz Ensemble, Chinese Language School and Next Door Neighbors, a puppet group from Virginia, are expected to perform.
In observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, county offices and schools will be closed.
The theme of today's s event is "Every Howard Countian Can Make a Difference," an emphasis also stressed by James E. Henson Sr., administrator for the county's Office of Human Rights, which works with the 14-member holiday commission.
"People of goodwill need to work together to make Howard County a better place to live, work, worship and play," Mr. Henson said.
Referring to Dr. King's vision of a nation united in racial harmony, he said, "I think Dr. King's dream should matter today, but I don't think we should look at his dream as 'his dream.' I think we should continue it and expand it."
Today's celebration is the second to be sponsored this year by the commission, established in 1988 by then-County Executive Elizabeth Bobo.
On Jan. 8, more than 200 people attended an event at Centennial High School at which the commission's "1995 Living the Dream" award was given to Natalie Woodson, a 23-year Columbia resident, and to Columbia Kappa Phi Lambda, a chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
"The purpose of the commission is not only to sponsor programs but it is also charged with stimulating countywide observances of Dr. King's vital contributions to racial equality and nonviolent social change," Mr. Henson said.
Mrs. Woodson, a 66-year-old retired Patapsco Middle School principal, was honored by the commission because of her work with children and the county National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In 1992, she founded the Educational Advocate for African Americans, which provides counseling and tutoring for county students. She also works with 12th-graders in danger of failing state tests needed for graduation.
Mrs. Woodson and her late lawyer husband, Cornelius, met Dr. King at a meeting at the Masonic Temple in Baltimore in the early 1960s.
"I shook his hand. . . . It was thrilling and, of course, you had to have the utmost respect for what he was doing," she recalled. "He was really putting his life on the line."
She and her husband also were among the 250,000 who joined Dr. King in the March on Washington in 1963. Three decades later, Mrs. Woodson said Dr. King's dream of peace and equality is far from dead.
"I believe there are many people who still have that kind of spirit," she said. "In fact, if it were not for people who give of themselves, this world would be an awful place."
The local chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, a historically African-American fraternity, received the commission's award for extensive community activities since it was founded in Columbia in 1974.
Those activities have included a tutorial and enrichment project for elementary students, a partnership with Oakland Mills High School, a mentoring program at University of Maryland Baltimore County, and sponsorship of the Alpha Jaguars, a youth basketball team in Columbia.
The group also has contributed more than $150,000 in scholarships to outstanding Howard County high school students in the past two decades, said Charles K. Rattley, a member of the commission.
In addition, the group sponsors a Martin Luther King Memorial Breakfast each year, an event that Jan. 8 drew 1,000 to the BWI Airport Marriott.