Moving tribute honors great American on his national holiday

LAKE COUNTY — Baldwin High School gymnasium was the scene last Sunday afternoon of the 2012 commemorative program celebrating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The festivities began with a spaghetti dinner, which was open to the public. Organizers were gratified by the response. More than 200 people showed up to participate in the event.

Promptly at quarter to three, the program got under way with a greeting from Master of Ceremonies P.T. Jones-Salaam, who praised the Civil Rights leader for his vision and his service to the American community. He challenged the audience to continue the struggle for freedom and equality by “doing our part, leading the way  and uplifting others to build a safer, stronger and more unified country.”

This greeting was followed by a prayer and the singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” A free-will offering was collected, with proceeds going to the Senior Scholarship program.

One of the highlights of the afternoon came when Colleen Carrington shared a very special MLK historical relic. She distributed copies of the actual program which was printed for the 1963 “Walk to Freedom” in Detroit which was organized by Martin Luther King.

Carrington told the assembled crowd that she was personally in attendance (as a 15-year-old) at the historic event and has vivid memories of the inspiring speeches and the powerful sense of solidarity that day.

“Over 15,000 people were there in the crowd, but they all maintained a respectful silence, she said. “I remember how quiet it was that day -- it was eerie.”

The march (which was the largest civil rights demonstration in history up to that point) took place less than a week after the tragic assassination of Medgar Evars -- an event that still haunts the memories of many Americans. Detroit was tense in those days, in part because of the boycott against A & P food store chain, which refused to hire Blacks.

Carrington’s brief but stirring address reminded her listeners that it is important not to forget how far we have come from the terrible days of segregation and legally sanctioned bigotry.

She, too, hailed King, not so much because of his many awards (including the Nobel Peace Prize) but because he was a “drum-major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

The keynote speaker at this gala event, Pastor Joe Washington, took the podium next to deliver a splendid oration on the theme of “Your Dream CAN Become Reality!”

Washington began by painting a bleak picture of the childhood conditions faced by far too many African-American citizens, who grow up in dangerous, crime-ridden neighborhoods with terrible drug problems. “All too often,” Washington pointed out, “The harsh reality is that dreams can be derailed because of such horrific circumstances.”

One of the bitter truths that Washington touched upon was the close connection between illiteracy and serious problems in adult life.

“Academic failure is strongly linked to the criminal justice system,” he noted, citing some shocking statistics about how many so-called “graduates” are in fact unable to read their own high school diplomas. Another terrible revelation: though Black males comprise only 7 percent of the total U. S. population, they account for 46 percent of the men incarcerated in our country today.

Washington exhorted the audience to help reverse these dismal trends by overcoming “our lack of preparation — parents need to be ready to help kids succeed.” Furthermore, he argued, we all must take responsibility for our actions and teach our children to do the same.

Quoting Kahlil Gibran and Langston Hughes, Washington reminded the children who were present in the gym that it is an awful thing to stop dreaming and to lose “self-initiative. No one,” he said, “will do for you what you can do for yourself.”

Harking back to the 1950’s and 1960’s when the Civil Rights campaign was most active, Washington observed that the people involved “saw an opportunity to succeed and pushed for it. They did not allow themselves to be deterred — even by attack dogs, fire-hoses, tear-gas or billy clubs.” We, too, he told the audience, “need to remain committed, to believe in our dream and act upon it, ignore the nay-sayers, get rid of wrong perspectives and attitudes toward life,” and to remember that dreams without action are like plants that lack water and sunlight — they can never grow strong and blossom.

Next came the presentation of awards for the Martin Luther King Day essay contest.

This year, Baldwin students participated in record numbers: over 300 entrants submitted papers, and the judges were especially pleased by the superior quality of the writing.

Among the winners were Tyler Shepler, who won first prize in the high dchool category; Brittany Bowling, who took home the honor for the middle dchool group, and Shyanne Tucker, who was first in the elementary school level.

A particularly moving segment of the afternoon’s festivities came with the performance of “Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-ins,” a dramatic re-enactment of the 1960s Deep South boycott of restaurants, stores and public facilities that were segregated in the era of the notorious “Jim Crow” laws. Students from the school theater club acted in this play, by Carole Boston Weatherford, vividly recreating resistance to “Whites Only” restrictions for drinking fountains, cafes, and five-and-dimes.

As is traditional, this year’s Giant Award for outstanding service to the community was announced. The 2012 winner is P.T. Jones-Salaam, to whom go out our heart-felt congratulations!

Altogether the event was a beautiful tribute to one of the greatest orators and spiritual leaders of the 20th Century, a remarkable human being who touched the lives of all of us in profoundly important ways.