Updated: Jan 17
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The nation's largest MLK Day luncheon event took place in Lansing yesterday (Jan. 16); it was hosted by The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission of Mid-Michigan. The 38th-annual celebration drew over 1000 people from across the state to a buzzing Lansing Center, as this was the first in-person meet up since the pandemic began.
MLK and Rosa Park's attorney, Fred Gray, was the keynote speaker. He is a 92 year-old, still practicing law. While there have been strides, he acknowledged that he was surprised by some of the recent laws passed making it harder to vote.
Gray said, "My desire was to destroy everything segregated I could find. And I had that desire before I became a lawyer." He added, "The struggle continues for equal justice under the law," saying that there is more work to be done.
Turning to recent local triumphs as evidence, the Lansing area continues its efforts to live out King's dream.
Elaine Hardy, East Lansing's first Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and one of the commission's chairs, is a thought leader locally carrying out King's legacy; she encourages people in power and government to challenge their biases and beliefs to create a strong, well-represented community.
Hardy said, "As most American children, I grew up hearing King's name." She added, "He is a hero of mine. He was committed to justice and service. He came from a certain amount of affluence. He did not have to reach back to work for the masses but he chose to. He inspires me to choose to do this work each day."
In the spirit of King, the luncheon uplifted Native American voices, with representatives addressing the audience in Native tongue while dressed in traditional clothing. There were a couple of people singing and playing an authentic drum as seen in a ceremonial powwow. The speaker highlighted how King's contributions led to civil rights for Native Americans.
With a mingling of history-makers, impacting dialogue took place on stage. Along with Gray's call for action, local officials talked about voting rights, activism and the leadership needed to round out King's vision in their own communities.
Ron Bacon, Mayor of East Lansing, addressed the crowd, with an intriguing discussion on how Gray and King could be considered Founding Fathers to the United States, as they challenged the greatest nation in the world to live up to its own creed.
When asked how MLK has shaped and influenced him personally, Bacon simply said, "It is in my very existence," he added, "to be the first Black Mayor of East Lansing in its 114-year history. The fact that we are still having firsts is an indicator on what has happened here in our nation and where we are now.”
In 2020, East Lansing declared racism a public health crisis as a step forward to finding resolutions to the city's embedded issues. Bacon gave examples of city initiatives put into place since that align with Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy:
In September 2021, an Elementary school was renamed after civil rights activist, Michigan State professor and friend of Dr. King, Robert L. Green, who fought against redlining in East Lansing. Dr. Green’s high-profile case prompted local advocacy groups to fight housing discrimination, which ultimately resulted in the adoption of a fair housing ordinance by the East Lansing City Council on April 8, 1968.
Combing over covenants for housing deeds, as Bacon said to ensure none have clauses in them that could be considered slanted or discriminatory
The DEI department headed by Hardy which is the first of its kind in the city's history.
Bacon emphasizes the importance of housing equality in East Lansing saying that 'when we all live together, we grow together.'
As many touched on at the celebration- there is more room for growth in equality and unity nationwide. The event itself though was a small manifestation of King's dream, with people of all races, nationalities, creeds and religious groups gather together, communing at round tables.