SOUTH HOLLAND | The few hundred people who gathered Monday at South Suburban College were there to pay tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Yet many had their minds also set on the activities taking place about 1,000 miles to the east.
The 13th annual King birthday celebration sponsored by Thornton Township coincided this year with the presidential inaugural – seen as particularly significant because it was the swearing-in for a second term of Barack Obama as U.S. president.
“This is a special day in the life of America,” said the Rev. Ozzie Smith, of Covenant United Church of Christ. “There is a lot going on today, and we should think carefully when we ask ourselves ‘What do you make of this day,'” Smith said.
Expressing a similar thought was Thornton Township Supervisor Frank Zuccarelli, who admitted a part of him wished to be in the District of Columbia for the inauguration.
“I know we’d all rather be in Washington, D.C,” Zuccarelli said. “The celebration of our state senator-turned-U.S. senator-turned president is something special.”
Monday’s program consisted of several musical numbers and speeches presented by students of Thornton, Thornridge and Thornwood high schools as a tribute to the life story of King.
One of those speeches was offered by Destin Patton-Warner, of Thornton High School’s speech team. She presented the address that Obama gave on Nov. 5, 2008, in Chicago’s Grant Park upon learning he had defeated John McCain to win the presidential election that year.
There also were significant portions of the program devoted to King, such as his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, as delivered by Thornridge High School speech team member Marquis Generally.
Smith, Pastor of the Covenant Church at 1130 E. 154th St., was in high school when King was shot and killed in 1968. He said his first reaction to hearing King speak was, “That man is going to get (black people) in trouble.”
But, Smith said, upon studying King’s words and the status of African-American people in a segregated society, “We were already in trouble.”
He said black people in his native Memphis had to suffer daily indignities such as being permitted to visit the local zoo on only one specified day per week, and being in schools that only got “new” textbooks when schools serving white students passed along used books.
“We had been in trouble for 400 years” of slavery, Smith said.
The pastor, who has been in the Chicago-area for 22 years, said the significance of King is that “he helped us to see a ‘Wonderful World of Color’ through a black-and-white TV.”
And through that, many people are now mystified at the old ways of a segregated society.
“Racism is not as bad as it used to be,” Smith said. “Black and white, we sit together, eat together, stand together and even marry together.”