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Published: Tuesday, 1/18/2011

Almost 3,000 unite at UT for 10th Martin Luther King celebration

BY CLAUDIA BOYD-BARRETT
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Harvey Savage, Jr., was in his early 20s when the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., led the historic crusade to end racial segregation and discrimination in America.

At the time, however, Mr. Savage was too busy with youthful concerns to pay much attention, he said.

Not so today.

As board president of the MLK Kitchen for the Poor working with some of Toledo's poorest residents, Mr. Savage said Reverend King's call for unity rings urgently in his ears.

The nation's widening gap between rich and poor heralds a need for people to work together in the spirit of Reverend King's words to combat inequality, he said.

"My real concern is that our children have not benefitted to the degree they should have" from the civil rights movement, Mr. Savage said yesterday after a celebration at the University of Toledo in honor of Reverend King.

"We just need to keep working at it. I believe if our country ever comes together like it should, we will be able to answer this problem of poverty that we have."

The theme of taking action to resolve society's problems ran through much of the event. The ceremony, titled "One World. One People … Tenth Year," included rousing speeches by Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, University of Toledo President Lloyd Jacobs, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), and St. Francis de Sales valedictorian Keon Pearson.

Each speaker addressed the significance of Reverend King's life and words by including a call to action.

Mayor Bell called on Toledoans to take on the responsibility of doing what they can in their own communities to bring about the change they want to see in the wider world. He encouraged listeners to approach life with a positive attitude and put Reverend King's dream into action.

"For a short time, let's not worry about the whole world, let's worry about what we can do here in Toledo," Mr. Bell said. "We can turn around Toledo. We can turn around northwest Ohio, we can turn around Ohio and the United States, but it requires that we have to get involved. You can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines and just think it's going to happen."

Dr. Jacobs addressed the topic of dreams, and what constitutes a worthy dream. "First of all, it must be altruistic, unselfish. It must be bigger than oneself," Dr. Jacobs said. "Secondly, a dream outlives the dreamer. The dream lives beyond the person who dreams it."

The university president called on students, especially, to take note of Reverend King's example.

"Dreams are powerful," Dr. Jacobs said. "You need a great dream. Young people particularly, you must develop a magnificent obsession. Dream a dream that will outlive you and share Martin Luther King's dream."

Miss Kaptur applauded Reverend King's peaceful approach to combatting violence and hatred in the world. She said the civil rights leader's message is just as relevant in today's environment.

"His unwavering message of dignity, humanity, and love is as appropriate today as it was in the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps even more so," Miss Kaptur said. "As we continue to reflect on the violence that has infected our society, as we search for the antidote to this poison of our body politic and civic life, we should remember the words of [the Reverend] King from 1958, more than half a century ago now."

In a speech titled "Dreaming Big Dreams," young Pearson, the first African-American valedictorian at St. Francis de Sales, who has been accepted to Harvard University, spoke of the important role mentors have played in helping him excel in life. He urged the adults in the audience to become mentors themselves to help disadvantaged young people escape poverty.

He called on impoverished young people to strive for a better future.

"Dream big dreams. We need you to be successful. I beg you to exit from the culture of ignorance that plagues the minority groups," the teenager said. "You do not have to live a life of poverty. There are greener, more comfortable pastures everywhere."

It wasn't all words at the event, however. Gospel songs, performed by the energetic Toledo Interfaith Mass Choir, prompted furious applause, as did dancing and drumming by the youth group JJ's Express. Mr. Bell also presented the first "Toledo Unity Award" to Robert Smith, president of the African-American Legacy Project of Northwest Ohio, for his work to compile historical information on Toledo's African-American community and use it for educational purposes.

"I am used to honoring people and not being honored, so I was a bit stunned to say the least," Mr. Smith said. "I accept this award for the people who have shared their stories, who have given their pennies, who have embraced us, lifted us."

UT officials estimated 2,800 people showed up for the celebration, held at UT's John F. Savage Arena. The event was broadcast live for the first time on WUPW-TV, Channel 36 and later on WGTE-TV, Channel 30.

Alena Nelson, 15, and J'Nai Davis, 16, of Toledo Early College High School said they attended the event because they were required to do so, but they were glad they did.

"I didn't expect to see so many different races here," J'Nai said. "I think there is a lot more equality than there was before. I think what [Reverend King] believed in and what he talked about is taking place today."

Naomi Stewart, a retired teacher who attends the event every year, said the celebration was the best one yet. "I couldn't think of any other place to be than here on this day. It's just an honor to be a part of it," Ms. Stewart said. "I think each year it improves. It just gets better and better and better. I can't wait until next year."

Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at: cbarrett@theblade.com, or 419-724-6272.



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