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Despite their divisive history and separate hosts and speakers, Jacksonville's two virtual celebrations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil-rights legacy offered similarly positive conclusions.
The theme of the event hosted by the local branch of the NAACP was King's last book, "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community." Local educator and activist Rudy Jamison Jr., a Jacksonville native, answered the book's title question in his keynote speech.
He saw the answer growing up on Jacksonville's Eastside, where "poverty was concentrated but community was abundant," he said. "Although chaos was present, community prevailed." And he sees it now.
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"Today's sociopolitical climate would have you believe that there is a possibility for America to move toward chaos," Jamison, a faculty member and assistant director of University of North Florida's Center for Urban Education and Policy, said. "However, I submit the universal character of America will ultimately move us toward community.
Meanwhile, the theme of the city-hosted event was this King pledge: "If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way."
"This opportunity to come together as a community and reflect, honor and strengthen our commitment to Dr. King's ideals of justice, goodwill and mutual respect is needed now more than ever," Mayor Lenny Curry said in an address, citing the ongoing COVID-10 pandemic. "But we are blessed with a resilient community. … made up of many people doing small things in a great way."
Progress takes everyone
Despite their focus on community and brotherhood, Jamison and Curry in their respective speeches said there is still much civil-rights progress to be made in the city.
Everyone — Blacks, whites and all races — must contribute to the effort, Jamison and Curry said.
"We all have to become more comfortable being uncomfortable … The cost of change is shared power and shared comfort," Jamison said.
He then cited passages from a book he co-wrote with longtime local civil-rights activist Rodney Hurst Sr., "Never Forget Who You Are: Conversations About Racism and Identity Development."
"We all must give up something," he said, quoting the book. "White folks, especially white males, must acknowledge their ancestors' atrocities" and share and exchange power. Blacks must "pierce the veils of racial wealth disparity as a collective. We must be acutely aware of the role race plays and how we interface with the world and how the world interfaces with us."
"Whites and Blacks must actively and intentionally seek social change. … We must all be soldiers in the struggle for respect, dignity and humanity for everyone," he said, quoting the book. "The community Dr. King talks about is not a noun, it's a verb … a process, not a destination."
Curry said King's vision was based on his belief in equality for all, "across all barriers." The mayor had the "same idea" with the "One City One Jacksonville" vision he brought when he took office in 2015. He remains just as committed to that ideal now, he said.
"Our city, like our nation, is composed of people with different backgrounds and experiences and we are stronger because of it," he said. "We're stronger when we work together, when we rely on each other and leverage the knowledge, strength and experience of our friends and neighbors."
Curry cited the work of of Black leaders in Jacksonville's history, such as R. Philip Randolph, Eartha M.M. White and James Weldon Johnson, who saw that community strength and took "righteous action toward creating a society based on equality, justice and freedom."
"As we move forward together, we must do what we can to honor their legacies and the legacy set forth by Dr. King," Curry said.
'Small things in a big way'
The keynote speaker at the city event was Bonnie St. John, who had her right leg amputated at age 5 but went on to become the first African American to win medals in Winter Olympic competition. She received a silver and two bronze medals at the 1984 Paralympics in Austria.
She and Curry said they were inspired by the winning essays written by the event's 2022 Tomorrow's Leaders Award recipients. They wrote about the theme of doing "small things in a big way."
"We can all make a difference," St. John said. "As a child, there were so many small things I couldn't do."
But after a trip with a friend opened her eyes to the joys of skiiing, she won a full scholarship to a skiing-focused high school, the first Black student to attend. And that ultimately led her to the Paralympics, where she was a role model for other people with disabilities.
"The Paralympics was not well-known then. I could be successful in a smaller way, make a difference in a smaller way," she said. "I broke a lot of barriers. … I feel like I paved the way for future generations."
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2022 TOMORROW'S LEADERS AWARDS
First Place: Brooklyn Reaves, fifth grade, Biscayne Elementary School
Second Place: Lenord Simmons, fifth grade, Riverside Presbyterian Day School
First Place: Kinley Nelson, sixth grade, Riverside Presbyterian Day School
Second Place: Candler Lott, sixth grade, Riverside Presbyterian Day School
First Place: Aria Brown, 10th grade, Samuel W. Wolfson High School
Second Place: Erma Browne, 12th grade, Homeschool
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: Separate jacksonville events honor civil rights leader