Detroit mayor reflects on how MLK's legacy applies today during annual dinner

The 27th annual MLK Jr. dinner included a Southern feast, singing, dancing and awards for Unsung Heroes.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s ideal of promoting identity through action is as relevant today as during King's lifetime, said Detroit Mayor Dave Bing in his keynote address during Syracuse University's 27th annual Martin Luther King, Jr., dinner.

“Being proud begins with you,” Bing said. “We don't need you to maintain the status quo."

More than 2,000 people filed into the Carrier Dome on Saturday night to the tunes of Ray Charles’s husky “America the Beautiful” to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy with awards, speeches and a Southern-style dinner. The theme of this year's dinner was "A Living Legacy: The Fierce Urgency of Now."

Photo: Brandon Weight
The Dance Theatre of Syracuse performs the Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired "Lift Him Up".

The occasion is one of the largest of its kind, said Tiffany Steinwert, dean of Hendricks Chapel and member of SU’s Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee. The celebration has occurred annually since 1986. But organizers try to keep the meaning fresh, Steinwert said.

“Today there is an urgency to create positive social change on many of the issues that Dr. King was passionate about,” said Steinwert. “All these years later what we’re trying to do is move those issues forward and talk about them in different ways.”

A traditional southern banquet helped set the atmosphere for such remembrance and discussion. The event’s program noted the symbolism of each dish. For example, cornbread and fried chicken slaves were hurriedly cooked from their masters’ scraps, according to the program.

Students, faculty and Syracuse locals congregated to eat together, forming what Steinwert called “the beloved community.”

Qasim McCray, a Syracuse resident, said he was proud to be part of the event. “I’m very glad that we get to come here and celebrate something that is truly worth celebrating,” he said.  “The entire civil rights legacy – something that was 400 years in the making.”

As the evening passed, the lights were dimmed. Tea lights on 210 tables twinkled under the Dome as the committee bestowed five Unsung Hero Awards. The medals draped on each recipient’s neck represent devotion to others without seeking personal praise.

This year’s recipients were Lynda Hamilton, manager of the Brockway Dining Center; Emily Kelsey-Gossard, a senior at Marcellus High School; Cheryl Spear, a doctoral candidate at Syracuse University; Lt. Col. Maryjo Timpano, director of staff at the 174th Fighter Wing, New York Air National Guard; and Risa Cantu C’DeBaca, a Syracuse University senior.

C’DeBaca is an Occupy Syracuse organizer and activist for social justice in the community. “Sometimes people can act on Dr. King’s dream in contradictory ways and not talk about what’s going on now,” she said. “There is so much more for us to do.”

After the awards, Bing gave his keynote address. He graduated from Syracuse University in 1966. Bing was drafted by the Detroit Pistons after an All-American basketball career in high school and college. He was voted one of the best 50 basketball players of all time. Later he founded the Bing Group, which Black Enterprise magazine recognized as one of the top minority-owned companies in America.

Bing's speech emphasize how King's ideals can be applied today. The two points Bing spoke of were taking pride in personal identity and advancing it through action. "We need you to be the change agents," Bing said, "thought leaders and the champions that you already are within and are still capable of further becoming.”

The evening concluded with entertainment including ballet and a community choir of men, women and children singing and swaying to the words of “We Shall Overcome.”

The song closed with the words chosen to represent King’s legacy as it lives now: “Deep in my heart I do believe, we shall live with peace today.”

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