A hush fell over an audience of about 2,000 as a video of Sen. Robert Kennedy’s speech after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. played on the big screen at University of Toledo’s Savage Arena.
It was part of remarks delivered by U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) Monday at the 17th annual Unity Celebration in honor of the late Reverend King. Several in the audience quietly wiped away tears as they watched the four-minute speech, delivered 50 years ago this April.
“His life was transformative to the United States of America,” Miss Kaptur said of Reverend King. “Thank you for being part of the progress that he dreamed of, and that he dedicated his life to.”
WATCH: Toledo’s 2018 Unity Day
Monday’s event featured speeches from several community leaders, including Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz, UT President Sharon Gaber, Lucas County Commissioner Carol Contrada, and Toledo Public Schools Superintendent Romules Durant. The offices of Gov. John Kasich and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor also sent a proclamation to be read at the event recognizing the holiday.
Toledo School for the Arts students performed in song and dance; local boy and girl scouts recited the Pledge of Allegiance; the United Vision Baptist Church choir sang; and the Toledo Opera Association previewed I Dream: The Story of A Preacher from Atlanta, which opens in Toledo in the spring.
Mr. Kapszukiewicz said Reverend King was an educated reformer who embraced his leadership in the civil rights movement at a young age. He was 39 when he was assassinated, 34 when he gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, and 26 when he led the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala.
He would have turned 89 on Monday.
“Now is a time that we can’t wait,” Mr. Kapszukiewicz told the crowd. “We have to be like Dr. Martin Luther King, who, at the earliest age, was ready to make a difference and made a difference that we still learn from 50 years later.”
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Mrs. Contrada also referenced Reverend King’s 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait in her remarks. She spoke about human injustices that were “pervasive, accepted, and perpetuated” during his lifetime and said many of these injustices still exist today.
She called for change to the wealth gap between races, a stop to laws and regulations that disproportionately make it difficult for minorities to cast their votes, renewed efforts to ensure equal access to high-quality education, and reform to the state’s criminal justice system.
“African-Americans, who represent only 12 percent of Ohio’s total population, represent an unconscionable 43 percent of the prison population,” Mrs. Contrada said. “We can’t wait. This disparity has to end.”
The event’s headliner was the Toledo Opera Association’s performance of two songs from I Dream, a rhythm and blues-inspired opera that recounts the 36 hours before Reverend King was shot to death in Memphis.
James Meena, the opera’s principal artistic adviser, said the story of the civil rights leader’s life and death is not simply black history, but American history.
“Only in understanding our past can we achieve the unity that the majority of America truly wants,” he said.
Nearly $10,000 in scholarship funds were awarded Monday to University of Toledo students. Six received Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship awards while five received African-American Leadership Council of the United Way Scholarship awards.
The marching band from Scott High School, where Reverend King gave a speech one year before his assassination, also performed.
Rhonda Sewell, the community leadership chair for the opera, encouraged community members and faith leaders to use the life of Reverend King as their inspiration to work toward equality and inclusiveness.
“A bullet cannot stop a dream,” Ms. Sewell said.