COLUMBIA, SC — Five years ago, then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama celebrated Martin Luther King Day with 7,000 others gathered on the State House steps.
On Monday, those at the 13th annual King Day at the Dome will see Obama again. But this time, they will watch him being sworn in for his second term as president, live on a big screen.
Having King Day and the inauguration on the same day may mean fewer people at the State House gathering, an event that attracted almost 50,000 in 2000 but some years has drawn as few as 1,000.
Many of those who normally would go to King Day instead are going to Washington, D.C., said Dwight James, executive director of the S.C. branch of the NAACP.
The collision of the two celebrations “illustrates the connection between the past endeavors to advance civil rights and the realization of the goals of the people who have spent a lifetime trying to improve American society,” James said.
King Day at the Dome was started to protest the flying of the Confederate flag on the State House dome. In 2000, the flag was moved to a Confederate monument on the State House grounds.
Since then, King Day has drawn thousands demonstrating for various causes.
Removing the stigma of mental illness across S.C. communities will be the focus of this year’s King Day program. Access to mental health treatment is an important civil rights issue in South Carolina, organizers say.
It also is a topic of immediate importance, said Bill Lindsey, state executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Health. December’s slaughter in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman entered a school and shot and killed 20 children, illustrates that importance, he said.
News reports subsequently have said the gunman was mentally troubled. Other commentary has pointed to the Newtown massacre as evidence of the difficulty of defining and talking about mental illness.
Reducing the stigma of having a mental illness is key, said Lindsey, who will speak at the King Day event.
“When I was a kid, you couldn’t say the ‘C’ word, that was cancer,” he said. Today, there is a vast support network for cancer patients. Lindsey would like the same to be true for people with mental illness.
Also speaking at the event will be Richland County Probate Judge Amy McCulloch.
McCulloch said the county’s mental health court, created in 2003, provides some support for the mentally ill moving through the criminal justice system. The program provides treatment, monitors their progress and provides counseling on how to live with a mental illness.
While serious mental illness affects one in 17 Americans, sufferers typically only seek help when they reach “crisis status” or when their illness leads to crime and prosecution, she said.
The Department of Mental Health asks for more money each year to treat mental illness in South Carolina, money that could help those affected get treatment more quickly and enable them to live better lives, McCulloch said.
“Mental illness is something we’ve got to talk about,” she said. “Treatment is necessary and successful living with a mental illness is absolutely possible.”
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