“The event is to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King,” said Rebecca Ciciretti, a School of Public and Environmental Affairs fellow. “Today was focused on service, but tonight we focus on Dr. King’s beliefs.”
The celebration has been put on annually since 1993 by the city’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration Commission, whose mission is “dedicated to celebrating the birthday and contribution of Dr. King and to promoting the acceptance of diversity.”
Early in the event, Mayor Mark Kruzan presented the Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award to the IU Office of Diversity Education for its commitment to promoting diversity and eradicating racism.
Eric Love, director of the office, accepted the award in a red blazer, beret and kilt, saying he was surprised but honored.
The keynote speaker and highlight of the night was Carlotta Walls LaNier, the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine, the black students who were the first to attend a desegregated high school in 1957.
Although she received an invitation to attend President Barack Obama’s inauguration, she decided to speak in Bloomington because she believes that educating people about the past is important.
“Young people need to know the history,” LaNier said. “That way they can know what they need to do to serve humanity.”
In her address, LaNier talked about how King battled segregation and racism and how these battles are still relevant today.
“In the Bible the prophet Isaiah answers call of God,” LaNier said. “In the same way Dr. King answered the call to serve humanity.”
She went on to talk about how we are able to live in this land of freedom because of what King and many others before and after him have done. But she warned that we are far from reaching the “promised land” King spoke of.
“If he were here today, he would say we too have a duty to serve,” LaNier said.
She spoke a lot of her experiences in the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School.
“I never set out to do anything heroic when I signed my name to the paper to attend the high school,” she said. “I just wanted the best education possible — my family raised me to believe I deserved nothing less.”
She then talked about meeting King, not a particularly moving moment for the 14-year-old.
“This was before his fame, his letter to Birmingham jail, his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, before he became the most revered and most hated man in America,” she said. “When I met him, he was just a preacher on a mission. But there was no eloquent speech — I saw just a man. My most enduring memory of him is sitting around a card table, eating barbecue ribs and drinking a beer.”
In talking of King, LaNier said many often think of social heroes as more than human. Though King did have great eloquence and leadership, at the end of the day he was just a man.
“When we see him like that, it removes our excuses,” LaNier said.
The end of her speech was focused on the fact that we all have a chance to make a difference, and that to stay silent is to allow the hatred and violence to continue.
“Sometimes when you answer the call, you have no idea how many lives you will touch,” she said.
After her address, LaNier was also presented with the MLK Legacy Award. The celebration ended with the whole auditorium standing up, holding hands and singing
“We Shall Overcome.”
“Stepping up doesn’t always require a giant step, just a courageous one,” LaNier said.
“You never know when your baby step might change someone’s day or change the world.”
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