WORCESTER — Amid songs, dances, speeches and awards, Worcester community leaders imparted themes of social justice and diversity to the city’s youth Saturday at the 24th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Youth Breakfast Celebration.
But the mood wasn’t solely celebratory, as leaders implored youth to carry on the legacy of Rev. King in the midst of divisive political and social times.
“Never has his appeal to activism been more relevant and important than it is now,” Mayor Joseph M. Petty said. “Our nation’s youth finds themselves becoming adults in a political climate marked by violent rhetoric, racial division and looming uncertainty about what the future of this country will deliver to them. We ask you all to remember why Dr. King believed his movement was successful and to reignite a fire of change in this country, sparked by that same positive power, to not give into darkness and to be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Mr. Petty then addressed students from El Salvador, Haiti and Africa — places President Donald J. Trump had reportedly referred to as "shithole countries" this week.
“You’re welcome here,” Mr. Petty said to a standing ovation.
Approximately 300 people of all ages gathered at Worcester State University Saturday morning to honor the youth of the city and commemorate the anniversary of Rev. King's birth on Jan. 15, 1929. and the 50th anniversary of Rev. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968. The event was an awards ceremony for annual community service awards, scholarships and a youth poetry contest. Multiple musical and dance acts also performed.
“This is the happiest, most inspiring event that happens at Worcester State University, and that’s saying a lot,” said Worcester State University Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Lois Wims. She lamented, however, how many of the people who knew, lived and marched with Rev. King were now dying, and urged the youth of the city to continue Rev. King’s legacy.
“We can all choose to walk with Martin,” Ms. Wims said.
Worcester Schools Superintendent Maureen Binienda stressed education as an antidote to “these times of challenge and controversy.”
“Students learn to value each individual and work respectfully with those who might have different views,” Ms. Binienda said. “These students are demonstrating the values of Martin Luther King.”
But students weren’t the only ones demonstrating the values of Rev. King.
“I’m blessed to work with people who realize our youth are the most valuable resource our country has,” said Edna P. Spencer, recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award in recognition of her role as the first African-American woman to serve as chairman and president for many of the city’s organizations. Ms. Spencer also published a book detailing her family’s move from Tennessee to Worcester during the Great Migration of African-Americans from the rural Southwest to the northern urban areas between 1916 and 1970.
Ike McBride, director of community engagement at the Boys and Girls Club of Worcester, was recognized for his work with the city youth as the recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Youth Service Award.
“Yes, we’ve made great strides,” Mr. McBride told the audience. “But there is still an immense journey ahead of us.”
But it was the youth - whether performing dances, songs or a rap, or receiving recognition for their poetry - who were the focus of the event.
“When I was writing I just thought about the 'I Have a Dream' speech - and I realized I just have to keep trying until I get to where I want to be,” said Deborah Doku, 15, whose poem, “Equality,” made her one of 27 students who won awards in the annual student poetry competition.
“Let’s hear it for these wonderful people,” Dorothy Hargrove, chairwoman of the Martin Luther King Jr. Youth Breakfast Poetry Committee, said of the recipients. “They are our future.”