By ANGIE CARNATHAN
Groups from throughout the community gathered to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. yesterday.
Mississippi State University held the 18th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Unity Breakfast in the Colvard Student Union Ballroom. The event was hosted by MSU President Mark Keenum, the Office of Diversity and Equity Programs and the President’s Commission on the Status of Minorities.
Moderator Michael V. Williams, assistant professor of history and African studies at MSU, opened the program by thanking everyone for their attendance, especially those who brought their children with them.
“This is just wonderful to see so many young people in the audience,” Williams said. “You are all helping to set a great example for the youth in our community.”
After the Pledge of Allegiance, led by the MSU Army ROTC Color Guard, MSU mathematics and statistics professor Seth Oppenheimer gave the invocation. Oppenheimer spoke of King’s sacrifice in the battle for racial equality.
Keenum then took the podium to welcome the crowd and thank them for their participation what he called an important day.
“We are glad you are joining us to commemorate the historic contributions of Martin Luther King Jr., and it is appropriate that we assemble on the university campus, for he was an ardent proponent of education,” Keenum said.
Keenum then read aloud one of his favorite quotes of King’s.
“Dr. King once remarked that ‘The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically; intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education,’” Keenum said.
He said the quote mirrored an important part of MSU’s mission to not only prepare students to earn a good living, but to lead a life of leadership and service to others.
Keenum also presented the morning’s keynote speaker, former Gov. William Winter, with a special award –– he made Winter an honorary Bulldog — and gave Winter, whom Keenum called a personal hero, with a plaque and his very own MSU cowbell.
Winter, who led Mississippi from 1980-1984, is remembered best for his passion for education reform and racial equality during his tenure. When Winter became governor, there was no state-funded kindergarten. In 1982, Winter succeeded against strong opposition in passing the most sweeping education reform in the state’s history, which established kindergarten for all Mississippians. Winter went on to be named a member of former President Clinton’s National Advisory Board on Race and played an integral part in the founding of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi.
Winter recalled during his keynote address when the MSU men’s basketball team won the SEC tournament three times in the early 1960s, but were denied access to compete in the NCAA basketball tournament because it had African-American players. The president of MSU at the time, Dean W. Colvard, for whom the union was named, fought against public outrage to allow the players access to the tournament. Winter praised MSU for taking a stand for racial equality during the tumultuous Civil Rights era.
After a special presentation by Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman, Donald Shaffer, assistant professor of English and African American studies, recognized three local students for the essay writing competition. First place was given to Leah Gibson, daughter of Kelvin and Tamara Gibson and a junior at Starkville High School; second place was awarded to Elsie Madison, a senior at Starkville High School and an active member of Rock Hill United Methodist Church; third place went to Ryan Lawrence, son of Mark and Jenny Lawrence, who attends Starkville Christian School and plans to enter his freshman year at MSU this fall as a history major. Honorable mentions were awarded to Kory Willis and Shawna Brownlee, both of whom are seniors at West Oktibbeha County High School.
The breakfast ended with a performance of the MSU Black Voices Gospel Choir and a benediction by Rev. Jerome Wilson, pastor of the Rock Hill United Methodist Church in Starkville.
Later in the day, a march was held, culminating at the Oktibbeha County Courthouse. The program after the march, “Capitalizing from the Past and Marching into the Future,” was organized by the Oktibbeha County Branch of the NAACP.
The service was moderated by Rev. Tyrone M. Stallings Sr., president of the Oktibbeha County Branch of the NAACP. Attendees were treated to a performance of “We’ve Come This Far by Faith,” sung by Shavell Rice.
Greetings were offered by Wiseman, Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors President Marvell Howard and Superintendent of Education James R. Covington Jr. District 5 Supervisor Joe Williams introduced the afternoon’s keynote speaker, Oktibbeha County Chancery Clerk Monica W. Banks.
Banks quoted what she said were some of her favorite passages of King’s and told the crowd to not give up in the fight for racial equality.
“Until we get together, hand in hand with all races, none of us will make it to the mountaintop,” Banks said. “I may have the podium right now, but it doesn’t matter where you are standing today, as long as you are standing up for what is right.”
Stallings led the crowd into the final song of the program, “We Shall Overcome,” by saying that if anyone missed church yesterday, they certainly had some today.