The 33rd annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration was held Monday at Fountain Street Church to reflect on King’s life and contributions to the civil rights movement.
Grand Rapids Community College, Davenport University and Grand Valley State University teamed up to host the free community event which brought the audience performances from the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Student Choir, Grand Rapids Civic Theatre and School of Theatre Arts and the Opera Grand Rapids Chorus and keynote speaker David Stovall, professor of African American studies at the University of Illinois (Chicago).
Davenport University President Richard J. Pappas delivered a few words of empowerment to the audience ahead of the night’s keynote speaker. Pappas spoke about his favorite King quote: “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
“On this important night… let’s let other people into our boat,” Pappas said. “When you see somebody different than you… let them into the boat. Let’s make sure they feel welcome. And you know what we can do is we can learn from those differences, because this is serious stuff that we’re dealing with now. It is not something that is going away soon. So if we all take an action, just take an action one day a week where you are inclusive, you bring somebody else into the boat, and I’ll be proud of all of you.”
GVSU President Thomas J. Haas also addressed the audience and thanked the students in the audience as well as the educators for their engagement in learning and the community.
“I’m an educator and when I see young people that come and participate in events like these, I’m inspired,” Haas said. “I hope you are, too, because what you get from the inspiration of our young people is the sense of optimism for our future and that’s the beauty of being an educator… There is that sense of optimism. And I want to say thank you to the young people and thank you to those who are helping mentor our young people for a better world for all of us.”
Representing GRCC were Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer B. Afeni McNeely Cobham and President Bill Pink. Cobham has been serving as GRCC’s Director of the Bob and Aleicia Woodrick Center for Equity and Inclusion and the center’s CEIO since December. Pink was not present at the event due to a scheduling conflict but did make a video appearance and addressed the audience about the meaning of the night’s event.
“As I think about this time of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day that we commemorate and think about the legacy of the man, I am reminded of one of his quotes that in essence says that the true measure, the ultimate measure of a man, is not as much in what he does in space of comfort and convenience, but what he does in a place of challenge and controversy,” Pink said in the video.
Pink also shared some words for those in attendance about his hopes to bring about change in the world.
“Surely, my encouragement to each and every one of you tonight is whether it’s in comfort or controversy, challenge or times of convenience, stand for what’s right,” Pink said. “Stand for what Dr. King stood for in terms of justice, in terms of loyalty to what is right and loyalty to what we know as a country and as a people that we need to do. That’s what tonight’s all about. That’s why people like Dr. Stovall are here tonight. So that we can talk about and we can commemorate the legacy of a man. But we can also think about what it means to truly, truly stand. To stand. Whether it be in good or bad times, comfort or challenge, to stand.”
Stovall concluded the night with his speech “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Radical Imaginary of Justice.” He chose to explain the title of his speech before jumping into it.
“Radical means something very different than what we’re positioned to believe,” Stovall explained. “A radical growth in body only means a growth from the root. So if something is radical, it means that we are operating on the root. And if we’re talking about imaginary, we’re talking about what we are willing to see and what we are willing to create and all the things that may prevent us from doing it. So a radical imaginary is saying this is how the world is and this is what we must do to change the condition.”
During his time on stage, Stovall focused on King’s later years from 1964-1968 and highlighted King’s willingness to learn from young people of the time.
“The radical imaginary is one that challenges us,” Stovall said. “But King was saying ‘I understand that at any given moment, I am reminded of the foundations of white supremacy that permeate this country. I am reminded that at any given moment, I can meet my own death. I am clear that I am not running from those things.’ The radical imaginary says ‘I will stand and fight, but I will fight in unison and solidarity with those also willing to engage that fight.’”
Stovall appreciated the night’s events and the music of the night because it served as a reminder of happiness and a call to action.
“We live in a world where joy is extremely difficult,” Stovall said. “We live in a world where joy is taken away. So now how do we bring it back?… I appreciate song tonight because song is the code to bring back joy. Not to just enjoy it, but to be reminded of its call for you to pursue justice. That’s what singing is about. It is the vibration that is calling you to justice. It is reminding you where you come from.”
Stovall concluded his speech with an appreciation towards King and a challenge for those in attendance.
“(King) is a king for justice and love,” Stovall said. “He is a revolutionary because he believed, and he was no longer fearful of what could be done to him because of where he came from. And that is the challenge that I put to all of us.”
Audience members received Stovall’s message and repeated his belief that there is still work to be done. Joyce Walker, 66, of Grand Rapids, has been attending the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration for the last 20 years at GRCC and the words of King resonate with her each year she attends the celebration.
“His message means hope, freedom,” Walker said. “Somebody was sitting next to me and they were saying ‘You know, that dream that we were expecting to have right now where kids wouldn’t be judged by the color of their skin when a young black man gets into a car and drives across town, driving while black, we don’t know if he’s going to make it home…’ So it’s still bad that we worry about our children… That dream that (King) had, it is better than 1968, but we still have a long ways to go.”
Shawn Brown, 49, of Grand Rapids, attended the presentation to see his nephew, a student at East Kentwood High School, accept a scholarship award. For Brown, the night was a reminder for him to stay connected to the community.
“I’ve been missing out on a lot of these events and the Martin Luther King celebrations,” Brown said. “It’s really great and there’s much, much more that I should be doing as a person. That’s really what I got out of it. And by coming to these kinds of events, they kind of remind you that there’s probably some more that you could be doing.”