President Barack Obama served as the keynote speaker of this year’s 33rd Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Noon Hour Commemoration, as attendees viewed his televised inauguration ceremony Monday at the M.C. Benton Convention Center.
The service began before noon this year to allow time for attendees to watch live inauguration coverage. After Sister Larretta Rivera-Williams delivered the invocation and Mayor Allen Joines offered greetings, everyone’s attention was focused on a large screen and the live images from Washington, D.C. it projected.
Attendees cheered and applauded as they watched. Amens and other cries of affirmation could be heard as President Obama gave his inaugural address. While President Obama focused on many issues in the speech, he took time to acknowledge the struggles that Dr. King and other civil rights pioneers faced in their fight for equality. He said the country’s “journey is not complete” until there’s equality for women, gays and immigrants. He also mentioned voting rights, saying no citizen should have to wait in line for hours to vote.
“That is our generation’s task – to make these words, these rights, these values – of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American,” said Obama.
The Noon Hour Commemoration – the city’s oldest annual MLK celebration – continued as scheduled after the inauguration ceremony ended. The MLK Dare to Make a Difference awards, which go to local residents who serve the community in a spirit that exemplifies Dr. King, went to Emmanuel Baptist Church Pastor John Mendez and voting rights activist Linda Sutton.
Mendez has received many national and international honors for his work as a social justice advocate, but he said none have been given to him at such a “historical moment.”
“It’s a kind of synthesis in that Dr. King lived, struggled and died for this day, and President Obama becomes the embodiment of not only a dream, but a dream that has become a reality,” said Mendez.
Sutton, the Forsyth County Board of Elections chair and the Triad organizer for Democracy North Carolina, used her acceptance speech to warn attendees that protections for “voting rights, human rights, workers rights, you name it” are under threat.
“All the rights that we have fought for and our mothers and grandmothers and forefathers fought for are in jeopardy,” said Sutton. “We have got to stand up, speak up and take some action because our children and grandchildren are going to face the same things our forefathers faced years ago.”
Mendez had his own warnings, telling the crowd that “reactionary retrograde forces” want to return the country to a “period before the Civil War.”
He also spoke out against a culture of violence that kills people, not just in mass shootings, but in everyday acts of crime and violence. Mendez said that non-violence, a philosophy King lived by, is needed in today’s society.
“We have to build a culture of non-violence that affirms life,” he said. “Not just non-violence as a method of struggle, but as an affirmation of life.”
In his remarks, local NAACP President S. Wayne Patterson said that marches and rallies – tools that Dr. King and others used to break down walls of bias – are still necessary. He encouraged attendees to join the NAACP at its Historic Thousands on Jones Street march in Raleigh on Feb. 9, when marchers will be urging lawmakers to to support issues like education equality and livable wages.
“Our journey will not be complete until we stop the inequalities on the east side (of Winston-Salem) compared to the west side; until we stop the inequalities on the north side compared to the south side,” said Patterson.
Noon Hour founder and organizer Mütter Evans invited the hundreds in attendance to stay after the service concluded to continue watching inaugural footage. She even provided free red, white and blue bags of popcorn to viewers.