Gainesville community leaders on Sunday celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, but also recognized the work that still needs to be done to achieve racial equality.
“If Dr. King were alive today, he would be shocked,” said Rodney Long, president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission.
More than 200 people gathered Sunday evening at Best Western Grand Gateway Hotel for the 35th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Hall of Fame Banquet hosted by the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission.
Speaking on the theme “A Community in Crisis: What’s Your Response,” Long delivered his annual State of the Dream Address. This year, he reflected on the highs and lows of racial justice throughout the past decade. The speech kicked off a week of events sponsored by the commission, culminating in the Jan. 20 national holiday.
Although decades have passed since the height of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr.’s work, Long cited racial disparity in income and housing as proof that King’s dream hasn’t been fulfilled.
“African Americans in Alachua County are almost 2.5 times more likely to be unemployed than their non-Hispanic white peers,” he said.
After the speech, the commission honored the award winners.
The 2020 Hall of Fame Award was given to community activist N’Kwanda Jah, executive director of the Cultural Arts Coalition.
“I’ve been blessed to be in this community for over 40 years. I have ancestors … who propped me up in the beginning. They believed in me. They supported me,” she said. “My dream … was supported by some really wonderful people.”
Sheila Baker-Bell, the assistant pastor at PASSAGE Family Church, was most excited about learning about the Edna M. Hart Keeper of the Dream Scholarship Award recipient.
“I believe in empowering young people and assisting young people with scholarships to further their education,” she said.
Spencer X. Gregory, a senior at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School was awarded the scholarship.
In addition to being his high school’s class president, Gregory is a member of the Black Student Union and has completed more than 350 volunteer hours, according to the commission.
With the $7,500 scholarship, he said he hopes to study graphic design, and his first-choice school is the University of Florida.
Both Jah and Gregory will be delivering speeches at the National Holiday Gospel Program on Jan. 20 at 2 p.m. at the MLK Multi-Purpose Center, located at 1029 NE 14th St.
Thinking of the night’s discourse, Alachua County Court Judge Meshon Rawls said the issues Long mentioned were complex.
“Every year, I think it’s good for us to be able to reflect on how far we’ve come and think about what Dr. King’s dream means as it is today,” she said. “It’s just a reminder that we have to keep pushing and not believe that we have arrived.”