The city of Martin and the University of Tennessee at Martin celebrated the life of slain Civil Rights Movement leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration and Breakfast held Monday, Jan. 20, in the Duncan Ballroom of UT Martin’s Boling University Center. The event, first held in January 2013, is sponsored by the city and the university’s Black Student Association and welcomed business leaders, community members, elected officials and university faculty, staff and students. The celebration’s theme was “Dream With a Vision. Live With a Purpose.”
Martin alderman and long-time university administrator David Belote emceed the event that included welcoming remarks from Martin Mayor Randy Brundige, UT Martin Chancellor Keith Carver and Kaylyn Bailey, of Memphis, UT Martin Black Student Association president. Pastor Orrin Cowley, McCabe United Methodist Church, offered the invocation. Following the meal, UT Martin student Gerrard Cox and Dr. Mark McCloud, director of the university’s Office of Career Planning and Development, served as keynote speakers. Both honored King’s memory by focusing on pursuing and achieving dreams and assuming responsibility in order to make the world a better place in which to live.
Cox is a senior criminal justice major from Humboldt. He credited his community and family support system for supporting him through different challenges. “Throughout my life, I’ve always had the problem thinking, ‘I don’t know if I’m good enough to do something, or maybe I just don’t have what it takes,’” he said. “And many times, throughout my life, when I’ll be willing to settle for mediocrity, it seems like these were the times when my support system pushed me the most.” Cox struggled in school early but said that his mother and teachers worked with him to turn his grades in a different direction by the fifth grade and, since then, he has achieved academically. Cox expects to graduate from UT Martin with honors this spring.
Cox has an older brother and two younger sisters, and his father wasn’t around much after his parents divorced when he was four. He described his mother, Danita, as “my superhero” and his grandfather, Eugene, as a father figure. He also credited his grandmother, who died during his first week of classes at UT Martin, as the person who inspired his entire family, and he will honor her memory when he receives his diploma in May.
In addition to his classroom achievements, Cox has also grown as a leader, first as a football player at Humboldt High School and then through his association with Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., which elected him chapter president. “Being placed in this leadership role has forced me to grow,” he said. “It was one of the best things that could have happened to me because it taught me I could lead, and I could be an effective leader because leadership is something I tend to shy away from.” Cox is also involved in the Student Government Association and was elected a senator during the last SGA election and then speaker of the senate by his fellow senators. “I’m not certain what my future may hold, but I know I’ll be successful at whatever I choose to do,” Cox said as he closed. “After going through so many trials and tribulations in my life, I have obtained the tools that I need to go forward, and now my life is in my own hands.”
McCloud continued the celebration’s inspirational theme by offering his ideas on how the community can help people achieve their own dreams through respect, responsibility and right choices. Speaking about the importance of respect, he told the audience about attending a conference last summer where he noticed an older man who was wearing a veteran’s cap. He thanked the man for his military service, and the man responded by saying, “You were worth it.” The response was not what McCloud expected and made him realize that this man fought in a war so that he could someday realize his own dreams. “So, we have to have respect for those who came before us because we stand on their shoulders,” McCloud said. “And we have to have respect for future generations because they will stand on ours.”
He told the audience that many of us hold titles, but our responsibility is “to leave those organizations (in which we lead and work) better than the way we found them” and to change things for the better with the responsibility that we have. He recalled as a parent the first time that he had to gather supplies for a school list and questioned why he had to purchase all of those items. He later realized that all parents couldn’t purchase the supplies, and if other parents did not purchase what was on the list, some children would do without. “So, I had no problem with that because we are our brother’s keeper,” he said. “No one man is an island. No one stands alone. Each man is my brother. … We need to live a life that’s driven by purpose.”
He closed by saying that too much is made of differences between people. “But guess what? The real issue is right versus wrong, and if it’s not right, it’s probably wrong,” McCloud said. “And there’s no wrong time to do the right thing. Loving thy neighbor as thyself is right. … Being able to be an advocate for those who don’t have a voice is right.” He said that we can all make a difference by doing the right thing and by reaching out to encourage those who are experiencing difficult times.
Music and award presentations were also featured in the program. UT Martin music major Nylan Barr, of Memphis, performed Bill Withers’ classic song “Lean on Me” and was accompanied on the piano by Dr. Danny Donaldson, Martin optometrist and a UT Martin graduate, who also provided music throughout the event.
Individual Awards included the Alpha Awards of Merit, presented in memory of King who was an Alpha Phi 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 leaders in civil rights. Alpha Awards were presented to Courtney Price, a senior health and human performance from Memphis; Kayla Gooden, a sophomore psychology major, also from Memphis; and event speaker Mark McCloud. The Black Student Association Torch Award was presented to John Blue, the university’s director of student life and multicultural affairs.
The final award, the Harold Conner City of Martin Award, was presented by Mayor Brundige to Martin resident Hoover Nunley. 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. Nunley’s daughter, Joann Collins, received the award on behalf of her father. Before announcing the Conner award, Brundige presented a proclamation for community service and support to the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. UT Martin faculty member Tara Tansil accepted the proclamation on behalf of the sorority.
Brad Thompson, Martin economic and community development director, saw the event as a success and an inspiration to the nearly 300 persons who attended. “It was a great, great event … all of it just exactly what we need to be doing this day in celebration and remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life.”