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2020 MLK Unity Breakfast draws thousands to downtown Birmingham

Keynote speaker Robert O. White II at the 34th annual MLK Unity Breakfast at the BJCC in Birmingham. (Erica Wright, The Birmingham Times)
By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times

The spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. filled the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex North Exhibition Hall on Monday as thousands gathered for the city’s 34th annual Unity Breakfast.

Keynote speaker Robert O. White II, Ph.D, an educator, legal analyst and pastor and member of the Alabama State University (ASU) faculty in Montgomery, Ala. for more than 20 years, said people talk about losing our young people, but it’s more serious than that.

“We have lost our entire country … it is my qualified opinion that we have lost control of not only our young people but of our government as well,” said White, who serves as the president of the Alabama State University Education Association and is on the National Education Association Editorial Board. “It did not start now and it has culminated up to this point.”

It is time to take a stand, much like Dr. King did, said White.

“We have to understand that while some of us individually may have made it, there is an entire population who remain stuck in the gutter and the question is who is going to take the stand and follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King and do those things necessary for the uplift of the people,” he said.

White also talked about service as a moral obligation and not community service.

“If you think that helping your brother is community service and not a moral obligation and responsibility then you will always be helping people whom you look down on, when you actually think you’re better than the person that you are helping,” he said.

White asked the crowd to embrace four things: our origin, our meaning, our morality and our destiny. “When we study our history and our culture… when you discover your destiny the only thing that will happen is you will find that there were other people in your origin in whose steps you have walked.”

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Area Leaders Speak

City and community leaders in attendance included Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin; Birmingham City Councilor Steven Hoyt; state Rep. Juandalynn Givan; Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway; Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr and Jefferson County Commissioners Lashunda Scales and Sheila Tyson and Bishop Calvin Woods, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

“Today we celebrate a man whose dream has become a blueprint for the reality we hope to attain,” said Woodfin. “. . . It reminds me of what Dr. King laid out so many years ago when he emphasized the fierce urgency of now. They need to take swift action in the face of injustice. Our charge today is to make King’s dream a reality with a fierce urgency and wholehearted dedication to the pursuit of justice. I don’t just mean in the realm of social justice, look no further than your own block, street, or neighborhood. There is work to be done.”

Givan spoke about hope and God’s grace.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, God’s grace, a sufficient grace,” she said. “I’m talking about a grace that has sustained this breakfast, one of the largest for over 30 years… A grace that Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about just before he died. A grace that blacks, whites, Jews and Gentiles can sit in a city, once known as Bombingham, now called Birmingham with one of the youngest black mayors in the country… God’s grace. Birmingham, we stand today on God’s grace… “

Pettway talked about recent efforts to highlight Jefferson County’s efforts to memorialize the last jail cell space in Jefferson County where King and other leaders of the movement were held.

“Let’s tell our story, the full story about civil rights here in Birmingham,” he said. “He was here. We need to tell the world and show the world what he did for us. It’s because of him that I’m able to be in office as a sheriff today. Today is a day of service, but let’s also remember the dream and continue to tell the story for the next generation.”

Carr implored people to follow King’s service to others and said “service is the rent that you pay for each day you’re here on earth and that rent is due every day, so when you walk out that door, please pay your rent today.”

He added, “Sometimes, nails of battle and planks of hatred builds the perfect stage. We need to take that stage and show unity, show courage, we need to take that stage and make sure that our young people who don’t believe in their dreams, understand they have the opportunity to be whatever they want to be and it’s up to us to do that.”

Hoyt also challenged people to give of themselves “not only today but the days to come to maximize and empty ourselves each and every day,” he said. “When I wake up in the morning and at the end of the day, I’m empty because we are challenged to give everything we got, our talents, gifts, abilities and capabilities to the glory of God. I challenge all of us this morning to maximize.”

Scales encouraged the crowd to “rise up, take up your bed, and walk.

“Our young people are lost… if you don’t tell the story they will continue to be ignorant about how we got here today. … the last speaker talked about voting and I will say this: nobody should ever have to tell black folks or beg black folks to get up to vote. The reason why a lot of people don’t care about how you get on Facebook and say you don’t like this president… is because you don’t get up and go vote. You don’t do what you need to change it.”