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MONDAY, Jan. 20 — About 1,800 people gathered at the Lansing Center today to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the MLK Jr. Commission of Mid-Michigan’s 35th Annual “Day of Celebration.”
This year’s theme: “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
The quote dates back to a speech that King delivered to a crowd at Riverside Baptist Church in New York exactly one year before his assassination in 1967. His words were largely framed in opposition to the Vietnam War, in which he spoke out against the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world”: the federal government.
“We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society,” King said. “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
And that message — perhaps now more relevant than ever — certainly lives on more than 50 years later.
Commission Chairwoman Elaine Hardy said this year’s event — which she said set an attendance record — was designed not only to honor the life of MLK Jr. but to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery and the 1965 Voting Rights Act — federal legislation designed to erode barriers to African American voting rights.
“When Americans saw that citizens were being denied their right to vote just because of the color of their skin, Americans did not stay silent,” Hardy said. “It is important that if you have a voice, and if you see something wrong, you have got to stand up. You have got to speak out. That’s the very thing that makes our country different from every other place on earth. That’s the reason there’s such a thing as the American Dream.”
Civil rights legend U.S. Rep. John Lewis was initially slated to serve as keynote speaker for today’s celebration, but he bowed out following a recent pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Andrew Aydin, an award-winning author and top aide in Lewis’ congressional office in Washington, D.C., spoke instead.
Other notable speakers included Lansing Mayor Andy Schor, East Lansing Mayor Ruth Beier, U.S. Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin and Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist. R&B artist Ledisi also performed alongside Lansing’s “The Music of the Dream” orchestra.
The Rev. Marvin Williams, lead pastor at Trinity Church in Lansing, also spoke to the crowd in prayer.
“We stand before you with profound gratitude for all that has happened to give us hope that there is a better tomorrow,” Williams said. “We also stand with a deep aching in our hearts. Whereas we’ve made progress, we know there is so much more progress to be made. We pray that this will not just be a perfunctory type of event.”
Schor also voiced a desire for continual improvements in the fields of diversity and civil rights across the country.
“We know there is still work to be done,” Schor said. “We celebrate today his life, legacy and the changes he made in the world. But we also dedicate ourselves to continuing the work that needs to be done to unify our communities and our nation. I wish I could tell you that we’ve solved all of these problems in the last 50 years.”
Slotkin retold one of her first encounters with Lewis after being elected to Congress. Like King, Lewis had developed a reputation as a stalwart and boisterous proponent for equality and civil rights, she said. He delivered a brief but powerful message to freshman representatives, deputizing them to get into “good trouble.”
“I loved that phrase: ‘Good trouble.’” Slotkin added. “It represents what all of us need to be doing in the face of what’s going on in our country. It’s no longer enough to simply attend. We must find a way to act.”
Added Peters: “One of the greatest lessons that he taught us was that our communities, our democracy, our country, are stronger when we work together as one American people. That principle is fundamental to our nation. It’s our motto. E Pluribus Unum: Out of many, one. We cannot let them win. We must speak out.”
“It’s more important than ever that we stand up and speak out and take action,” Stabenow added afterward.
Organizers said the 35th annual event is likely the largest commemorative gathering for MLK Jr. Day in the country, noting that all 1,800 tickets for the event had sold out, setting a new record for the commission. The group’s goal: Support equality, diversity and social justice by bolstering efforts focused on promoting educational opportunities and youth initiatives, while also curbing ongoing problems with violence and hunger.
The nonprofit also supports a number of community service agencies and promotes various youth initiatives like essay and art contests, college scholarships and an annual cultural immersion program for high schoolers.
Search for the commission on Facebook for more details or to view additional pictures and videos from the event.