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Civil Rights Leaders Emphasize Legacies as Calls for Action Today at Annual MLK Tribute

Recalling the last days in the life of a storied Civil Rights leader and the lessons learned over decades of activism, Ambassador Andrew Young reminded those gathered at Saint Louis University on Friday, Jan. 12, that the legacies of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and other civil rights advocates, should inspire them to work for inclusivity, racial equity, peace and economic justice in their daily lives and in the future.

Young was the keynote speaker at the 2018 MLK Tribute hosted by SLU and the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis. The memorial event and tribute honors the life and legacy of King as lived out by those working for justice and racial inclusion today. Young was honored along with seven other civil rights advocates, many of whom spoke of the need for the continuation of King's mission.

Young, a key confidante to King, told the audience of his reaction to King's death 50 years ago in Memphis after an assassin had fired the shot that killed the Civil Rights leader.

"I thought, 'You've left us for heaven, but you've left us in hell," Young recalled. He spoke of the confusion other members of the movement felt and of how King's memory inspired them to action. "They also realized that when Martin Luther King died, the struggle was just beginning."

Noting the changing terrain of battles for civil rights and justice – from racial segregation and racism of his New Orleans childhood in the 1930s to economic inequality today – Young noted that those assembled had a duty to connect and to work to surmount differences and divisions, even in tense political times.

MLK at SLU in 1964
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at SLU in 1964. The University has partnered with the Urban League of Greater St. Louis to host a memorial tribute and awards ceremony annually. SLU also honors King's visit with readings of the speech he gave in the West Pine Gym, now the Center for Global Citizenship, each year. SLU photo

"This country is not going backward," Young declared. "Differences create insecurities. Insecurity is what racism is all about. And if you're secure in yourself, you can love everybody."

The challenge, he said, was to work toward that change in every day life by invoking his father's advice to him as a boy: "Don't get mad, get smart." That advice, he said, allowed him to approach a jail guard who used insulting language whom he met while visiting King and other civil rights leaders in a Georgia prison with respect instead of anger. Fate brought the two men together years later.

Decades after their meeting in the Georgia jail, Young again met the guard. The man had been so moved by their conversations that he had remade his life, away from the violence and racism of those jails cells. The ambassador recalled that his one-time adversary thanked him "for helping me be free."

"Race is not an impermeable barrier," Young reminded the crowd. "As Dr. King said, 'we are inescapably bound together in a network of mutuality.'"

King's was the not the only legacy invoked during the Jan. 12 ceremony in SLU's Wool Ballroom. Honoree Glenda Hatchett, the first African American woman to become chief judge of a state court in Georgia, dedicated her Legal Legend Award to pioneering civil rights St. Louis attorney Frankie Muse Freeman. Freeman died later that day at the age of 101.

Michael McMillan, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis and a SLU alumnus, recognized the work of former SLU Dean Don Brennan, Ph.D., as well as Norm White, Ph.D., a SLU criminologist who was noted for his work related to racial equity and children's education, who died in December 2017. Both White and Brennan's widows were present at the ceremony and were recognized as their husbands' representatives.

McMillan also spoke of the role SLU's Jesuit values and Ignatian educational tradition played in his own path to civil rights advocacy. After taking an African American Studies class, he said, he shifted course away from the finance degree he'd begun two years earlier to pursue study in the field and his eventual work with the Urban League.

University President Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D., noted the impact of a speech King gave on the SLU community and its continuing commitment to justice, racial equity and the St. Louis community.

"SLU will join you, our community partners, in breathing life into dreams," Pestello said. "We are reminded that we must not give up, and we must not give in to extreme pessimism. We are not alone in this endeavor. Nor was Dr. King."

Civil Rights activist Xernona Clayton, in turn, complimented Pestello's leadership, as did McMillan and other speakers.

Young turned talk of inspiration into reality before beginning his speech. As the ambassador took to the podium, he invited students from St. Louis's Marian Middle School to join him onstage. Noting that he had received many awards in his life, he told the students and crowd that he'd formed a new habit - to give the accolades he earned to students and schools. He presented his statuette and its accompanying city proclamation and other honors to the two girls.

The award, he said, would serve as a reminder of Dr. King's work and of the work yet to do.

Jonathan Smith, Ph.D., SLU vice president for diversity and community engagement, welcomed the assembled while SLU alumnus McMillan, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, acted as the tribute's emcee.

Smith closed the official program before a final prayer from Justin Daffron, S.J., SLU's assistant to the president for growth strategies, saying, "My heart is full of joy and happiness. This is a room full of connections across every area of our region where we need to work for change."

Andrew Young with students from Marion Middle School following the ceremony

Ambassador Andrew Young (center) has made a habit of presenting awards he receives to students to inspire them. On Friday, Jan. 12, he gave the Civil Rights Legend Award that he received at the MLK Tribute, co-hosted by Saint Louis University and the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, to students from St. Louis's Marian Middle School. 

2018 Honorees

Founded in 1818, Saint Louis University is one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Catholic institutions. Rooted in Jesuit values and its pioneering history as the first university west of the Mississippi River, SLU offers nearly 13,000 students a rigorous, transformative education of the whole person. At the core of the University’s diverse community of scholars is SLU’s service-focused mission, which challenges and prepares students to make the world a better, more just place.

Story and photos by Amelia Flood, University Marketing and Communications