Martin Luther King honored in countywide celebration
Published: Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 19:03
This past January, the Hilton Garden Inn was the site of the 12th Annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Champaign Countywide Celebration.
Every year, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his message is honored most notably each January. Dr. King’s birthday is more than just a free day from school or work. Champaign County assures the community of that very statement, remembering one of the great civil rights pioneers of our time.
According to the City of Champaign website, “The purpose of the event is to celebrate the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and to recognize and honor individuals who have made many contributions to their community in the areas of civil rights, human rights and humanitarian efforts.”
The event is a joint production of the cities of Champaign and Urbana, Champaign County Board, Parkland College and the University of Illinois.
“Each year we pick a theme based on one of the quotes from a speech that Dr. King has given,” Dean Marietta Turner explained. Turner serves as one of the members on the committee responsible for the celebration.
This year’s theme was “Having the courage to overcome the mountain”.
Dr. Willie Fowler gave his insights as to what the excerpt meant to him, saying, “Being steadfast in overcoming any odds. Being able to understand where you’ve been and having the internal fortitude to move forward.”
As Fowler interpreted that message, he also stressed the importance of the event.
“The Champaign County Celebration is very important because it allows us to participate in an effort that’s a nationwide effort for Martin Luther King Jr. and marking the remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr.,” Fowler said.
“It allows the Champaign community to be involved in that, to talk about the struggle for civil rights, to talk about the tremendous effort that was given, the sacrifice for civil rights for our country.”
An unfortunate circumstance of the event is that because it is celebrated so closely to Dr. King’s birthday, most students cannot attend. Most students are still on winter break from school.
This year the college took a unique approach. The event was recorded and played back for the students on a special screening day. On February 25, the celebration took place in Room D-244 from 1 – 2 p.m. The students received a firsthand account of the activities that took place.
Fowler, who facilitated the celebration, found his students most intrigued by guest speaker Ernest Green.
Green was a member of the Little Rock Nine. The Little Rock Nine was a group of students who put to the test the Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared segregated schools unconstitutional. Brave, focused and with the assistance of federal troop escorts, these nine African-American students attended Little Rock Central High School.
Green was the first African-American to graduate from Little Rock Central. His journey enlightened Fowler’s students.
“It was hard being African-American living back then,” Criminal Justice major Raquita Banks said. “For example they couldn’t get a good education because all the good schools were for the white kids. My point is that we, as African-American students, shouldn't complain about the little things because back in those times they did not have it easy.”
And the struggle was not easy. One of Green’s recollections in discussions with Dean Turner further justifies the path to integration.
“I was riding the bus past that school every day to go to the high school that, based on Jim Crow laws, only black kids could go. We knew we had bad lab equipment. We didn’t have the latest books,” Green explained.
“At that time I had a dream to be a Nobel Prize winning physicist so I knew I had to get a really good education if I wanted to reach for a dream like that. I got tired of riding past the good school which was a regionally award winning high school,” Green continued.
Green convinced his parents to let him apply to the project that would integrate African-American students into Little Rock Central.
Originally there were 100 students. A month before the plan was to be put into action the number dwindled to fewer than 30. Within a week, in conjunction with the constant media attention the story was receiving, only 12 students remained. By the day before, it shrunk to nine.
Turner was very adamant about making sure students are aware of their history. If you don’t know where you come from, you have no idea how to get where you need to go. Her message was that the personal research can give helpful advice as well as increase relations between people as they may share common strands.
History is easily forgotten and Green’s struggle with the rest of the Little Rock Nine can get lost in the shuffle.
“Don’t take education for granted,” Fowler advised. “Even today, the U.S. Supreme court is dealing with another issue that’s important, voting rights. Don’t take these rights for granted. If we take it for granted, then those opportunities may be foreclosed to us in the future in one way or another.”
How does the legacy stay alive and intact?
“We keep trying to tell the stories,” Turner said.
As long as they are repeated, they will never go away.
Another set of stories that needs to be repeated are those of the award winners shown in the video from the celebration.
Tori Exum-Johnson won the Doris Hoskins Prestigious Community Service Award.