Music, speeches honor slain civil rights leader
By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — Saying freedom suffers when young people drop out of school, Judge Rickye McKoy-Mitchell urged a large crowd at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast to boost graduation rates by serving as mentors.
“Freedom cannot ring for us if freedom does not ring for them, our youth,” said Mitchell, a district court judge in Mecklenburg County. “Our youth are our foundation for where we go … Where we go as a nation, as a world, it will be our youth.”
While Rowan County high schools have graduation rates varying from 35 percent to 86 percent, the graduation rate for African American males has plummeted to 21 percent, she said Monday.
“That should ring very loudly to us,” she said. “We have to do something.”
When she presides over juvenile court, Mitchell said she often asks juvenile offenders where they see themselves in the future. Mitchell said she hears disappointing replies such as “be a baller, be a rapper.”
Young people need help identifying and developing their gifts and talents, she said.
“But the responses that broke my heart and also woke me up to understand that we need to do more was a response of, ‘If I’m living,’” she said. “Now our kids are killing each other.”
Rather than toss them away, Mitchell said she has worked to establish mentoring programs to help youthful offenders find hope and opportunity. She calls on friends and colleagues to spend time with at-risk kids.
When they came back after seeing the possibilities, their academics and behavior improved, she said.
While not everyone can be famous, everyone can be great, Mitchell said she learned from King. And greatness comes through service, she said.
With poverty rates doubling in many counties, people find it difficult to achieve the freedom espoused by King, Mitchell said.
She urged listeners to identify their talents and “lay them before God and ask how can we use it to bless others,” she said. “It is not about us. It is about what are we going to do in service to others.”
Other speakers addressed the crowd that filled the J.F. Hurley YMCA gymnasium for the 26th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Celebration breakfast, which kicked off a day of activities commemorating the slain civil rights leader and honoring his legacy.
The breakfast event included music, prayers, awards and comments by Salisbury Mayor Paul Woodson and Carl Ford, vice chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.
A ceremony followed at the Freedman Cemetery, and Mae Carroll served as grand marshal for the parade.
“Where else can we get together with such a diverse group to celebrate community over chaos?” said the Rev. Whayne Hougland, rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and chairman of the Salisbury Rowan Human Relations Council, which hosted the events.
As a Baptist minister, King was heavily involved in a political movement and refused to kowtow to those demanding the separation of church and state, Ford said. King knew that was the way to change things, he said.
Sometimes the government is wrong, Ford said.
“And Dr. King was showing that with his speeches, with his peaceful marches,” he said.
Ford urged listeners to move forward to honor and respect one another.
“It’s not about race, it’s about God amazing grace,” he said.
Woodson said he found inspiration in King’s work to secure freedom and jobs for people.
“You know if you don’t have a job, you really don’t have freedom,” he said.
Like King, Salisbury City Council has set goals and objectives, including recruiting more businesses to provide jobs for city residents and encouraging existing companies to stay, Woodson said.
When he first won election 14 years ago, Woodson said Councilman William “Pete” Kennedy became his mentor. Woodson said he asked Kennedy, the only African-American elected official currently serving in Salisbury, what Dr. Martin Luther King meant to him.
“He said ‘Paul, Martin Luther King means I can be on the Salisbury City Council,’ ” Woodson said. “And I’ve never forgotten that.”
Food Lion executive Tom Robinson said his company sponsored the celebration because like King, Food Lion and parent company Delhaize America aspire to have a diverse and inclusive environment for everyone.
All people have the right to be free, Robinson said.
“We need to wake up, answer the call and move to make this our reality,” he said.
Dari Caldwell, president of corporate sponsor Rowan Regional Medical Center, recalled watching King deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech on a small black-and-white television in the den of her family’s three-room mill house in Kannapolis.
Just six years old at the time, Caldwell said she remembers feeling mesmerized by King “and really not knowing why.”
“But I knew something was about to happen that would change the world,” she said.
The healthcare industry has learned from King, Caldwell said, and Rowan Regional and parent company Novant are working to eliminate healthcare disparities in the community.
From providing free flu shots at the homeless shelter to contributing to math and science education in public schools, “we believe it’s important what you say, but it’s more important what you do,” Caldwell said.
A Native American prayer ceremony led by Chaplain Fleming Otey opened the event, and Martha Corriher of American Legion Auxiliary 146 sang the National Anthem. The Community Choir, under the direction of Dr. Phillip Burgess, had the crowd on its feet with “This Little Light of Mine.”
Dr. Nilous Avery served as master of ceremonies, with Seth Labovitz and the Rev. Leamon Brown providing opening prayers.
Mark Lewis of the Salisbury Rowan Human Relations Council presented awards to Deborah Scales and Katherine Fleming for organizing the events and thanked the community for the large turnout.
“It shows the consciousness of this community that you are here this morning,” Lewis said.
In his closing prayer, Orlando Zapata of Cornerstone Church asked people to embrace the unity of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day “not just one day a year, but allow it to be a daily practice in our city.”
“We know we are not perfect, and our city is not perfect,” he said. “But we are glad we are not what it used to be.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.