As 2021 begins and the world seems to be far from normal, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s goals for transformation and healing remain as relevant as they did in the 1960s.
On Monday morning, about 30 people virtually tuned in to the 27th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Unity Breakfast. Typically held at the Mill Conference Center in Starkville, Mississippi, the event reflects King's legacy and reformations that occur each year.
Ra'Sheda Boddie Forbes, vice president for access, diversity and inclusion at Mississippi State University, helps organize the Martin Luther King, Jr. Unity Breakfast each year. She said she hoped people leave the event feeling motivated.
"I'm really hoping that people will walk away recognizing that the changes that take place around racial justice and social justice have to be both a collaborative and a unified effort," Forbes said. "I hope that people walk away, committed to working together in order for that to happen."
Opening the event with words about King's persistence, Donald Shaffer, director of African American studies at MSU, described the efforts it would take to fulfill King's vision.
"Each year, we gather together as a reminder that Dr. King's work is not yet complete," Shaffer said. "Change does not come without controversy. Change does not come without determination. And change does not come without persisted effort."
MSU President Mark Keenum followed Shaffer's speech. He said he was disappointed the community could not gather together for this year's breakfast, but he noted the message's importance was still evident, even transmitted through a computer screen.
He continued to reflect upon the differences between this year's unity breakfast and last year's due to COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement and the storming of the U.S. Capitol which occurred a few weeks ago. Keenum said he was proud of Starkville residents' support over the past year and the community's strive for change.
After Keenum's speech, the Mississippi State University Black Voices Gospel Choir shared its talents with a rendition of "Stand by Me" by Ben E. King, a befitting choice for the occasion. The members of the choir swayed along to the music as they shared a message of harmony.
Robert Barnes, a 1972 MSU graduate; Tyler Packer, a senior political science major and student body president at MSU and Yulanda Haddix, president of the Oktibbeha County NAACP chapter and MSU alumna, each briefly spoke about Martin Luther King, Jr.'s influence in their lives.
"If Dr. King was alive today, his dream would be the dream he's always had: that we can be judged just by the content of our character, not by the color of our skin," Haddix said.
The keynote speaker of the breakfast was Justice Reuben V. Anderson, a senior partner at Phelps Dunbar LLP, the first African American justice to serve on the Mississippi Supreme Court and chairman of the commission to redesign Mississippi's state flag. In his speech, he described how Mississippians could continue King's legacy in their lives.
Justice Anderson discussed the challenges faced in 2020, and he wished 2021 to be far better. Even so, he said there was a crucial implementation in 2020 that will significantly affect Mississippians: the new state flag. He said the impact of the flag would set the state on a new course of action.
Continuing his speech, Justice Anderson noted Mississippi has been in last place for all of his life, and he said he is hopeful for the Magnolia State's future.
"Whether or not in income, education or healthcare: it's always been on the bottom. And that happens in spite of the fact that we have the greatest people, the most talented people, the greatest poets and authors. We're the birthplace of America's music. We have a great climate. We have the most fertile land. We have the Mississippi River. We have 90 miles of beaches, but we have always lingered on the bottom. But that will change. When that flag is hoisted, people around America will know we are an inclusive state," Anderson said.
Anderson finished his speech with a plea for young Mississippians to consider staying in the state instead of moving away so the state's future will be brighter for generations to come.
The final speaker of the morning was Alexis Wallace, assistant director of student leadership and community engagement at MSU. She emphasized that actions of service should not be something that only occur once a year, but rather, people should use each day to march toward progress and resilience.
The Black Voices Gospel choir concluded the Unity Breakfast with "Lift Every Voice and Sing," with the message of peace and harmony echoing for all to hear.