Just hours before Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States, the Ministers Alliance of Rhode Island celebrated another African American trailblazer at the 30th annual MLK Scholarship Breakfast. The timing was not lost on the Reverend Dr. Sammy Vaughan, president of the alliance that yesterday gave out 27 $1,000 college scholarships.
“For me to be standing and for us to be standing here at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet, and at the same time having Barack Obama being inaugurated for a second time – this is a day we will always remember,” he said.
In his stirring keynote address, the Reverend Dr. Kirk Byron Jones recalled April 4, 1968, the day King was assassinated. Jones was only 9 years old and was watching television when the news broke in with the announcement.
“I don’t remember hearing the name prior to that evening,” he said, but the news seemed serious, serious enough for him to wake his father up.
“My daddy didn’t say much, but when he spoke, it mattered. He said, ‘Son, there’s going to be trouble now,’” Jones recalled.
Now a professor of ethics and preaching at Andover Newton Theological School and the Boston University School of Theology, Jones says he still cannot hear King’s words without standing.
“Something inside of me rose up that night,” he said.
Reflecting on the inauguration of President Obama, Jones mused that King would be humbled and grateful to know how far the country has come. He said the work is far from over, however, and urged policymakers to include the rights of children and the poor in the discussion. In each decision they make, he urged them – and Americans overall – to try to incorporate Martin Luther King Jr.’s principles into their lives.
“We’re going to need more will, more determination, more creativity,” he said of tackling the challenges ahead. “Practice more prayerful pausing.”
In his opening remarks and invocation, the Reverend Dr. Don Anderson, executive minister at the Rhode Island Council of Churches, said that the message of Martin Luther King Jr., is perhaps more important than ever.
“This is, in earnest, a calling out to God for justice and for righteousness,” he said, chastising those who turn away from violence or injustice, those guilty of the “sin of indifference.” “Fill us with the passion that Dr. King modeled for us.”
Rabbi Ami Levin and Reverend Dr. Ernest Ward read passages from the Old and New Testament, respectively, but related the Biblical texts to the work of Martin Luther King Jr., and his “I Have a Dream” speech in particular.
“Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream,” King said in 1963. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
To some extent, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung says that dream has come true. Living proof, he is the state’s first Asian American mayor. He recognized his friends in government, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and Central Falls Mayor James Diossa, who was in attendance, as other examples of people of color who have broken the barriers of race.
“There has been a lot of change that has happened since Dr. King led us on the march – led us on the march to freedom, led us on the march to equality,” he said.
But Fung said that progress must continue. He wants to see more minorities in positions of influence in government, education, corporate America and the judiciary, to name a few. He specifically called on Governor Lincoln Chafee to work on getting a person of color on the state Supreme Court.
“There’s a lot more that needs to be done. There have to be more that follow behind us,” he said. “We cannot rest.”
Speakers also touched upon the importance of education in that ongoing quest for equality. Governor Chafee, who called MLK one of his personal “heroes,” said that, like Fung, King is living proof – proof of how education can be put into action.
“His education helped him lead a movement that changed our country,” Chafee said.
He acknowledged the generosity of Alliance donors for making the MLK scholarships possible, including Amica, MetLife, Delta Dental, National Grid, CVS Caremark, Nixon Peabody, Nortek Corporation, Hasbro and Neighborhood Health Plan. Scholarships are available to college students who are active in a church from which the minister is a member of the Alliance.
As a policymaker, Chafee pledged to make education accessible to students of all races.
“As your governor, I promise to continue to open those doors of opportunity,” he said.
Nancy Carriuolo, PhD, president of Rhode Island College, said education was the “bedrock” of King’s work, making him a role model for students and educators alike.
“He used his education to change the world. His words stirred the hearts and the minds of people of all races,” she said.
Before passing out the scholarship awards, Carriuolo quoted the Reverend King, challenging the students being recognized to improve themselves as individuals as well as scholars.
“Intelligence is not enough; intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”