Celebration, reflection and remembrance highlighted the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration and Breakfast held Jan. 21 in the Duncan Ballroom of UT Martin’s Boling University Center. The event is sponsored by the city of Martin and the university’s Black Student Association to honor the memory of slain Civil Rights Movement leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Attendees included business leaders, community members, elected officials, university faculty and staff, and UT Martin students.
Martin Alderman David Belote, also a staff member in the university’s Office of Enrollment Services and Student Engagement, emceed the event that included welcoming remarks from Martin Mayor Randy Brundige, UT Martin Chancellor Keith Carver and Courtney Price, UT Martin Black Student Association president. Jackie Thomas, Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church pastor, offered the invocation.
Following the meal, UT Martin student Tyra Hawkins and Skyhawk head men’s basketball coach Anthony Stewart served as keynote speakers. Hawkins is a psychology major from Jackson and is past president of the Black Student Association. She spoke about having passion and the important role it plays when seeking and achieving life’s goals. She told of entering the university in 2013 as a nursing major, being accepted into the program in spring 2015, but deciding that she lacked the passion to continue. She also remembered a Twitter post she saw then that asked, “Are you living, or are you just existing?”
She re-examined both her academic path and her campus involvement and decided to become more active. “And I found that I was really passionate about helping the black community,” she said, so Hawkins became active in the Black Student Association and was eventually elected BSA president. “But I say all of this to say that you are enough,” she said. “You know, when I started out, no one knew me on campus. I really didn’t know a lot of people, but I had a passion for something, and I just went for it.” She quoted King who said, “‘Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase,’ and that’s basically what I did. … Any worries or doubts that you have about your goals, just put them aside. Throw them out the window, because everything that you need to be great is already inside of you. Stop waiting for someone or something to light your fire. You already have it.”
Stewart is in his third season leading Skyhawk men’s basketball and followed a similar theme by urging those in attendance to step outside of their comfort zones to achieve success and to make a difference in the world. He noted three King quotes that had influenced his life: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that”; “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”; and “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
“Dr. King was clearly the most important voice of the human rights movement, which worked for equal rights for all,” Stewart said, noting that King refused to use violence to advance the movement and his ideas. Unfortunately, Stewart said that Americans often take basic freedoms for granted and added, “I also just think that we take for granted respect, common decency to one another, the ability to be able to be heard and have an opinion regardless of your race, religious views or political views.”
Stewart was not raised during the civil rights era, but his grandparents were. They took him in at age 15, and the life lessons that he was taught by them saved his life. He observed that they were never bitter, angry or unforgiving because of all they had seen and experienced. Perhaps the biggest lesson Stewart said that he learned from his grandparents and King was, “You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable in order to tear down certain walls, and stereotypes and ignorance.”
As recently as 2000, Stewart would not have believed that he could become UT Martin’s head men’s basketball coach. He attributed this to not applying what he learned from his grandparents and the slain civil rights leader. He began his career in the transportation industry in which few black employees worked. His first experience in Tennessee was coming to a West Tennessee town in 1999 and quickly discovering that he was out of place because of his race. The experience affected his attitude about ever returning to the state.
Later, when the opportunity came to join the UT Martin coaching staff, he was reluctant to accept, but after talking with his wife, he reflected on what he had learned in life. “Due to my own ignorance, my own misinformation, my own stereotype, I just about missed my opportunity to be here (at UT Martin) today,” he said. “I almost missed my opportunity to be a head coach.” The decision to forgive, to love and not to hate has paid dividends in his life.
Stewart credited basketball with offering fulfillment in life not available to him in the corporate world. While holding a full-time company position in Columbus, Ohio, a friend urged him to accept a part-time coaching job, and Stewart was paid a small amount for the extra work. He had a great job and lifestyle, “But I got more fulfillment out of helping these kids, in particular, that looked like me. … I had to do some reflection on my life.” Many breaks had come his way to achieve personal and financial success, but he viewed himself as a “taker.” His basketball coaching experience convinced him that it was time to give back. He resigned his corporate position in 2004 and, with his wife’s support, he accepted a coaching position at Long Beach State University in California.
“I love what I do (coaching), and I’m only able to do it because of what Dr. King did for me and what Dr. King has done for everybody everywhere. He’s given us a blueprint, he’s given us the scheme as to how you can be successful and still help others.” He urged everyone to follow King’s example and become “comfortable with being uncomfortable,” which provides opportunities for personal growth and helping others.
Music and award presentations were also featured in the program. UT Martin student Jarvis Banks-Lee, a music major from Ripley, performed “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and “A Change is Gonna Come” as Dr. Danny Donaldson accompanied him on piano.
Individual Awards included the Alpha Award, which is given to a UT Martin faculty member and a student in memory of King, who was an Alpha Pi Alpha member. The award recognizes those who have demonstrated leadership on campus in the area of civil rights. In addition, the Torch Award is given by the Black Student Association and honors individuals who are symbolically “carrying the torch” as a leader in civil rights. John Abel and Miguel Gutierrez both received the Alpha Award of Merit, and the Black Student Association Torch Award was presented to Dr. David Barber.
Abel is assistant vice chancellor for student affairs and was honored for his work with students, while Gutierrez, a psychology major, was recognized for his work with Latino students who attend the university. Barber, a UT Martin professor of history, was honored for long association and leadership with the university’s Civil Rights Conference.
The final award, the Harold Conner City of Martin Award, was presented by Mayor Brundige to Dr. Danny Donaldson, a Martin optometrist and UT Martin graduate who annually plays piano for the breakfast. The award recognizes longtime leadership, service and dedication to the community and is named for the Rev. Harold Conner, the first African American administrator employed by UT Martin after the university was desegregated in 1969.
Brad Thompson, city of Martin economic and community development director, described the annual breakfast as a highlight of the positive town-and-gown relationship shared by the community and the university. “From its humble beginnings, this program has evolved into a sellout event,” Thompson said in statement following the event. “The MLK breakfast is inspirational and challenging for those who attend, and I know this year everyone left with a renewed sense of living with purpose.”