Despite the cold, over 200 people packed the house for the 20th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Breakfast at the Rock Hall Firehouse on Monday. The event honored MLK with history, poetry, music and recognition of local citizens.
Dr. Patrick Nugent of the Washington College C. V. Starr Center for Study of the American Experience gave the keynote address, talking about MLK’s study of history both as a way to inform his arguments and to build a case for change.
Nugent also spoke about the Chesapeake Heartland Project, a joint program of the Starr Center and the National Museum of African American History and Culture of the Smithsonian Institution to gather and digitize documents of African American history in Kent County.
Nugent said MLK was a huge influence in his life and led him to the life of a historian. Nugent recalled the Easter of his thirteenth year when he was given a copy of MLK’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”. The book changed his life.
As he read more about and by MLK, his interest and respect for history grew. Nugent was fascinated by MLK’’s knowledge of history — both global and local history– and how he wove it into his speeches and most significantly in his Civil Rights work.
Before MLK approached officials, he did all his homework. He would cite the facts and figures of past tax disparities, of improved roads, schools, and security in wealthier, mainly white communities while African American and poor communities were ignored and under-served by business and government.
One event really brought it home to MLK. He went to a school concert one of his children was in. The concert program was supposed to be about the history of American music—it’s scope and variety. Not one selection in the hour-plus program was African American music. No jazz, no blues, no gospel. And the program ended with a rousing rendition of Dixie! How could children take pride in their heritage if they never learn about it?
Nugent, warmly introduced by Airlee Ringold Johnson, invited a number of others to participate in his speech. Dorothea Williams of the African American Museum gave an overview of the Heartland Project, which chose Kent County as the fourth locale to be digitized after Baltimore, Denver, and Chicago. And Washington College students Paris Young, Paris Mercier, and Diana Moneke told of their participation in the project and how it inspired and empowered them to record local African American history.
The breakfast featured awards to local residents in recognition of their contributions to the community. The Rev. David Ryan of First United Methodist Church and Christ Methodist Church in Chestertown was this year’s recipient of the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award. The award citation noted his efforts to create an inclusive environment for all community members, notably at the Community Dinners held each Monday in the church hall. In thanking the committee for the award, Ryan invited all audience members to the dinner.
Also receiving the award was Alexus Abner, a graduating senior at Kent County High School. The Rev. Mary Walker, announcing the award, said she was impressed by how Abner spoke about her goals and aspirations. Walker said it is important to push young people to achieve – “The harder you push them, the farther they will go,” she said. A percussionist in the school’s jazz, concert and marching bands, Abner is also active in the school’s radio station WKHS. Abner plans on attending college as a music and communications major, aiming for a career in music, film, and broadcasting.
Three students at Kent County Middle School were chosen as recipients of the Vincent Hynson Memorial Youth Award, recognizing their participation in activities including sports, academic work, and community organizations. Love Ki’Onna Jackson (Grade 6), Olivia Johnson (Grade 7), and Jamiya Christie (Grade 8) were this year’s honorees.
Robert Earl Price read a powerful original poem building on a phrase from MLK, “the degenerating sense of nobody-ness” and a Harry Belafonte quote, “integrating my people into a burning house.” It told how we celebrate MLK’s vision and his stirring oratory but we rarely mention his assassination and what it says about our society.
The audience was treated to musical selections by the Kent County High School jazz band, which performed during breakfast before the program.. For the invocation, Sue Matthews sang a beautiful rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer.” The Friends in Faith quintet performed a stirring version of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” followed by “I Open My Mouth to the Lord.” And the Friends in Christ preceded Nugent’s speech with two rousing numbers, “My Ship Just Came In,” and “I Love to Praise His Name.” They returned at the end of the ceremonies to sing “Thank You Lord,” and after the benediction by Rev. Emanuel L. Johnson of Janes Church and Emmanuel United Methodist Church, to lead the singing of “We Shall Overcome.”
Program Master of Ceremony Doncella S. Wilson, a member of the Kent County Local Management Board and a Denton town councilwoman, made sure the program ran smoothly and that all involved were recognized appropriately. Another successful MLK Memorial Breakfast. Now all that remains is to go out and follow in his footsteps.
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