The City of Columbia held its 35th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration on Monday at Martin Luther King Jr. Park on Greene Street.
After a strictly virtual 34th event last year, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration was in-person this year and recognized the four recipients of the Dream Keeper scholarships and winners of the Honor and Food drive as well as featured the entire audience singing together "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and "We Shall Overcome."
Columbia Mayor Daniel J. Rickenmann and Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Alex English also gave speeches at the event.
English, who replaced the recently-deceased Vince Ford as the keynote speaker for the ceremony, played basketball at USC from 1973-1976 before a 15-year NBA career that saw him inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1997. During his time playing for the Gamecocks, English became the all-time leading scorer at the school and has been second on that list since 1999. He has also served on the university's board of trustees since 2020.
In his speech, English reflected on his childhood in South Carolina during the Civil Rights Movement. As a child at the time, English siad he felt like he was part of the movement, even though he did not know it.
"We were all about what was going on in our little kids' world. We were not as aware of hardship that our sisters and brothers were dealing with on the frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement," English said.
In order to better understand the adult world that surrounded him as a Black child in the South, English said he recently listened to the audiobook of King's autobiography. Through it, English said, he came to realize that one of the keys to King's activism was his ability to create allies.
"There are many instances in Dr. King's biography where different allies stepped up to keep the movement moving," English said. "There were Protestants, Baptists, Jews, Catholics, 40 of the nation's most revered historians, nuns, priests. They were all valuable allies."
In his opening remarks, Rickenmann echoed the importance of following King's legacy in building community to uplift every group in the city.
"This year in 2023, make an opportunity to grow your circle of acquaintances and friends," Rickemann said. "So I challenge you, in honor of Dr. King, reach out your arms, go to the table, break bread with somebody new, somebody different and get to know our community."
City manager Teresa Wilson, who initially introduced the keynote, encouraged the audience to follow in King's spirit by making unlikely friends or having conversations with others that may not the think the same way.
"Epitomize what it means to support each other, break barriers, raise up others in the profession that come behind you," Wilson said. "Literally shoot your best shot."
English concluded his speech by addressing how he believes King would have responded to the recent backlash against the Civil Rights Movement.
"I'm sure if Dr. King was alive today, he would be at the front of the line rallying his troops, rallying his allies to reach, get involved and get wounded again," English said.