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SLU, Urban League Honor MLK's Legacy, Continued Call to Action


At their annual memorial tribute honoring civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Thursday, Jan. 16, Saint Louis University and the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis honored those carrying forward King's legacy of activism and advocacy for racial equity and justice across the St. Louis region.

Acclaimed journalist Roland Martin give the keynote speech at the 2020 Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Tribute Breakfast. Launch SlideshowAcclaimed journalist Roland Martin give the keynote speech at the 2020 Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Tribute Breakfast.

Keynote speaker, noted journalist and author Roland Martin, told the crowd in SLU's Wool Ballrooms that "leaders step up when it's time to lead," challenging those attending the tribute to King to recall the civil rights leader not as a mascot, but for his radical commitment to social justice and advocacy on behalf of economically, racially and socially marginalized. 

"He was a man of more than giving speeches," Martin said. "Don't you dare quote Dr. King unless you are willing to live like Dr. King."

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at SLU in 1964.
Civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at SLU in October 1964, an event the University marks each year. SLU archival photo

Following a prayer by Christopher Collins, S.J., assistant to the president for Mission and Identity, Jonathan Smith, Ph.D., vice president for diversity and community engagement at SLU, welcomed the crowd, as did SLU alumnus Michael McMillan, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis.

McMillan applauded the University community and its commitment to racial equity, saying SLU, "never loses sight of its Ignatian mission of being men and women for others."

University President Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D., anticipating Martin's remarks about the continued need to live out King's mission and guiding principals told those gathered, "we celebrate his preaching, we celebrate his teaching and we celebrate his leadership."

"SLU is with you, our community partners, in breathing life into the dream of a more just city," Pestello continued. "Each of you has kept the dream alive."

The breakfast tribute has become a SLU and Urban league tradition, drawing local leaders, advocates, students and members of the wider St. Louis community together. In 2018, Martin Luther King III, gave the event's keynote address, while in prior years, those gathered heard from civil rights legends like Ambassador Andrew Young.

Members of the St. Louis Community Ensemble sing.

Members of the St. Louis Community Ensemble led those gathered at the 2020 Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Tribute Breakfast at Saint Louis University's Busch Student Center in "Lift Every Voice." Photo by Amelia Flood

Special Honors and New Initiatives for Justice

Returning to the stage, Smith gave a special presentation to the crowd, announcing SLU's new Institute for Healing Justice and Equity.

Led by faculty members Amber Johnson, Ph.D.Kira H. Banks, Ph.D., of the College of Arts and Sciences; Ruqaiijah Yearby, J.D., of the School of Law; and Keon L. Gilbert, Dr.Ph., of the College for Public Health and Social Justice, the institute is one of SLU's Big Ideas in Research that Smith said will lead the way in spearheading regional efforts to spark new projects related to transformative justice, equity and healing.

Following Smith's announcement, Pestello, McMillan and Smith presented the year's awards to a cadre of accomplished academic, civic, business and political leaders. This year's awards also included a new honor - the Whitney M. Young Humanitarian Award.

Congressman William Lacy Clay accepts his award.

(Center) Congressman William Lacy Clay (D-MO1) joins University President Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D. (left) and Jonathan Smith, Ph.D. (right) to accept the 2020 Political Leadership Award. Photo by Amelia Flood

2020 Honorees

Donald Brennan Humanitarian Award

Denise Hooks-Anderson, M.D., associate professor of family and community medicine in the School of Medicine and SLUCare physician.

In accepting the award named for the long-time SLU dean, Anderson invoked her grandparents and noted, "To much is given, much is required. So I count what I do not as a job, but as a ministry."

Anderson was honored for her work advocating on behalf of those impacted by health disparities, poverty and inequality.

Organization of the Year Award

Area Resources for Community and Human Services (ARCHS) funds and strategically enhances initiatives that improve the lives of children and families facing disadvantages and disparities in some of the St. Louis area's most marginalized communities.

Accepting the award on behalf of his staff, board and clients, Wendell Kimbrough, ARCHS CEO, thanked his board and staff, noting the significant progress the organization had made in advancing its mission as well as its path forward.

Education Leadership Award

Art McCoy, Ph.D., superintendent of the Jennings School District, was lauded for his commitment to children and his work propelling positive change in a district that has now seen two consecutive years of 100% graduation, career and college placement for its high school.

McCoy called for a renewed dedication from those assembled to advancing expanded mental health services and efforts aimed at healing deprivation and access issues across the community.

"We're going to fight this war against ignorance," Kimbrough said, "and we're going to win this war."

Political Leadership Award

Acknowledging the debt owed to elder civil rights leaders, Congressman William Lacy Clay spoke of the power of King's legacy and its salience to America today.

He urged the crowd to embrace King's mission as their own, quoting the storied civil rights leader: "Anyone can be great because anyone can serve."

Inaugural Whitney M. Young Humanitarian Award

Accepting on his own behalf and that of his wife, Noémi Neidorff, Michael  Neidorff, president and CEO of Centene Corporation, also received a letter from the head of the national Urban League, Marc Morial, thanking him for his steadfast support of the organization's efforts, locally and nationally.

Morial's letter noted, "Your support is a source of continued strength."

A Clarion Call to Carry Forward Radical Compassion

As he began his keynote address, Martin warned the crowd, "God gave me the spirit of discomfort. It's my job to make people uncomfortable. And that's the kind of man Dr. King was."

Martin urged those gathered to recall King's attentiveness to issues including police violence and brutality, to economic inequality and political marginalization.

Keynote speaker Roland Martin address the crowd.

Keynote speaker Roland Martin address the crowd. Photo by Amelia Flood

"It you say you care about him, you better care about the issues he cared about," Martin said. "Here was a man killed fighting for men picking up trash. And too many of us are living in cities where we ignore people picking up trash and who are living in trash."

Political and civic engagement - and personal sacrifice - are more urgently needed than ever, he continued, and direct, sustained action on the part of every man and woman of conscious is necessary to bringing the true justice King advanced into being.

"We have the power to do, we have the capacity to do, but do you have the heart to do?" Martin asked the crowd. "It's time to get to work."

Saint Louis University is a Catholic, Jesuit institution that values academic excellence, life-changing research, compassionate health care, and a strong commitment to faith and service. Founded in 1818, the University fosters the intellectual and character development of more than 13,000 students on campuses in St. Louis and Madrid, Spain. Building on a legacy of nearly 200 years, Saint Louis University continues to move forward with an unwavering commitment to a higher purpose, a greater good. Learn more at