MELBOURNE, Fla. – Each year, a little after sunrise on the third Monday in January, a crowd gathers in front of the single-story building in Melbourne that bears the name of a man whose life and work are embedded in history.
There are songs, chants for peace and a march along University Boulevard, a community where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for service is echoed through volunteer reading programs for youth, a new job training center, and calls for non-violence.
The choice of where to meet, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library on the corner of Lipscomb Street and University Boulevard, is significant for longtime residents like Mary Baker, News 6 partner Florida Today reports.
“It took a few years to get the library here,” recalled Baker, of the campaign to place a county library in the heart of the South Melbourne neighborhood.
“It really is a part of what (King) stood for and what he looked at for the future of America. A place of education and ideas,” said Baker, president of the Friends of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library.
Baker says the group is keen on having the library continue to build on its ties to the surrounding community while also reflecting on the vision held by the slain civil rights leader. For many of a certain generation, the corner where the library sits comes with a rich history linked to the predominantly black neighborhood.
Inside, just past the large mural of King, children, including many from nearby Stone Magnet School, play chess and hunt for comic books. Poets like Augusta Williams hold court while an African American book club gathers on Thursdays to share insight about select tomes.
“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education,” said King, who also promoted education and ongoing studies as a way to uplift the black community during the struggle for civil rights.
But before the library — which celebrated its 20th-anniversary last year — opened its doors, the place it now sits was a barren plaza drained by drug sales and straddled by apartment complexes ravaged by poverty and the crack epidemic of the 1980s.
“It’s an interesting story. There used to be a lot of drug sales on that very corner,” said Dr. Gordon Patterson, a professor at the Florida Institute of Technology and a local historian.
“Family, church, and school. Those were essential to the formation of African American communities and all three have undergone profound threats over the last few decades since the death of Dr. King. That’s why places like the King Library and the Evans Center are important. They are anchors in the community,” Patterson said.
That same crime-addled corner became symbolic for the community’s struggle to survive. Leaders like Rev. Carol Glanton — known to residents for her colorful pink hats and handheld megaphones — took to the streets with others with anti-drug marches that lasted for weeks.
Later, the South Brevard Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Friends of the Stone Library carried out cleanups of the plaza as plans for the library were routed through the county.
Then in 1999 the library, with King's name prominently displayed, opened. The library was helmed by Estella Edwards, who organized programs at the facility.
Every year, the Martin Luther King Jr. Coalition — the organization that plans annual celebrations for the federal holiday honoring King in Melbourne — gathers hundreds of peace march participants in front of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Public Library.
The struggle continues
Last year, the library served 50,000 patrons with an annual operating budget of $318,000, said Irma Fordham, director of the Melbourne and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Libraries.
“We continue to provide many useful services to the community — low cost faxing, notary and computer classes and free scanning,” Fordham said. “We have weekly programs for children and serve as a place to do homework after school. We have 10 computers for adults and four for children. Additionally, we have two iPads installed with learning apps in the youth services area.”
Groups like the Melbourne-Palm Bay Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta have donated books.
Baker said more could be done, from having a more diversified staff to including residents on beautification plans.
"The leaders in the community can come up with ideas to help expand the library. Look at the landscaping, look at the fence line, trim, the upkeep could better," Baker added.
“It takes the community to step up.”