Churchgoers met Sunday afternoon in the New Zion Baptist Church sanctuary to celebrate the life and work of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
People trickled slowly into the sanctuary, which glowed from the late afternoon sun, talking and laughing with one another until the ceremony began. Attendees were a mix of young and old faces, regular comers to the celebration and new ones.
"It's always been very interesting," said Hazel Adair, who was attending the M.L. King birthday party for the third year in a row. "I love the whole thing."
The event, held on the eve of the national Martin Luther King Day holiday, focused on the children and youth of today.
"We wanted to do this for our children," said Rosalind Harris, "to keep the history alive, to give them guidance while they're young. We are blessed to have our children here today."
The event is put on every year by the Unity Group, a civil rights organization based in Chattanooga. Harris has been helping the group organize the King festivities for almost 20 years.
The program was filled with a wide selection of performances, ranging from speeches to musical pieces.
The featured musical presentation was the Unity Community Choir, a group of children from 12 area churches who came together to sing for the event. Most of the children were dressed in their Sunday best, the boys wearing shirts and ties, the girls in colorful dresses with beads and bows in their braided hair.
The crowd cheered while the children performed. "Sing it, babies!" one audience member shouted in the middle of their first song.
Later in the program, the keynote speaker, youth minister Ashton Alexander, spoke passionately of the community's ability to overcome circumstances to accomplish great things.
"There have been so many young people who have been told that they can't," he said. "You have to live life knowing that you have to accomplish what God wants you to. You don't have to be a pimp. You don't have to be a prostitute. Our collective experience shows us that we can!"
Alexander, a junior at Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn., has been ministering at the New Emmanuel Baptist Church for about two years, and his parishioners say they love him.
"My favorite part is ... seeing our little associate minister bringing the word!" said Merry Robinson of New Emmanuel. "I thought it was a great program. Keeping the dream alive that we all come together and hold hands, black and white."