“Americans need to come out of their comfort zone in dismantling prejudice,” the organizer of Black Lives Matter of Columbus said in a keynote speech at Monday’s 21st annual CommUNITY Breakfast Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.

The local African American Pastors Alliance organized the free gathering focusing in part on the legacy of the civil rights movement, and the work that remains to make equality a reality.

Columbus resident Brittany King, 28, who organized the multiracial chapter about 18 months ago, earned a standing ovation for her message “Addressing the Elephants (in the Room)” before a crowd of about 350 people at the Columbus North High School cafeteria. The audience included students and leaders in education, law enforcement, human rights, business, nonprofits, city and county government and other disciplines.

The event theme, during the 50th anniversary year of Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, was “MLK50 Forward: Together We Win With Love For Humanity.”

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Speaker Brittany King, who is not related to the slain civil rights leader, touched on love in her opening, saying: “Unfortunately, that’s not where we’re all at right now.”

She used the late King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” from 1963 as a backdrop for her address that became emotional twice near the end — once when she spoke of a local resident who mocked her black heritage on social media and once when she spoke of the strength of her Christian faith.

She called the year of 2017 a blessing and a curse. She mentioned that the curse was easy to identify.

“Some people wore their bigotry proudly,” she said.

Yet, she quoted the King as identifying one of the larger obstacles to batting racism: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”

The Black Lives Matter leader’s speech resonated with Columbus listeners such as Robin Haywood, who was slightly emotional afterward.

“Brittany brought me to tears, she was so inspiring,” Haywood said, adding that she is especially impressed that King seems bold and unafraid of those who have opposed some of her chapter’s work. “If I had a daughter involved in this kind of movement, I guess there would be times sometimes when I would be scared for her.”

Allen Smith said he thought the 21st MLK breakfast in Columbus may have been among the most important in recent years, given that he said he feels racial tensions “are trickling down” even from various national leaders.

Mayor Jim Lienhoop said he personally recalled the day the Southern Baptist preacher was assassinated, and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy announced the news to much of the nation.

Lienhoop spoke of the importance of unconditional “agape love” for others in order to destroy racism.

“This is what Jesus meant when he said, ‘Love your enemies,'” Lienhoop said.

The mayor pointed out that the civil rights champion King was careful to point out that loving others doesn’t mean one must like them. And while Lienhoop acknowledged that major racial incidents locally last year were limited to two white supremacy groups attempting to organize in Columbus, “They nonetheless have been troubling.”

Jim Roberts, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. superintendent, used the late King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “The Quest for Peace and Justice” as the framework for his remarks. And as Roberts highlighted topics ranging from poverty — still a looming international issue today as it was in King’s day — to war, with the threat of a U.S. nuclear clash with North Korea, Roberts concluded each subject with, “After 50 years (since King’s death), we still have work to do.”

Beloved Community Award

Lori Thompson, vice president for marketing and U.S. diversity initiative for Cummins Inc., was presented with the Beloved Community Award at Monday’s 21st Annual CommUNITY Breakfast celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.

Frank Griffin of the local African American Pastors Alliance presented the honor to Thompson, singled out both for her work on behalf of Cummins and also her community volunteerism that includes efforts as one of the founding members of the local African American Fund, work as past president of Columbus Sunrise Rotary, Love Chapel, and Turning Point Domestic Violence Services.

At Cummins, she was the first African American plant manager, setting performance records, Griffin said.

Thompson said she was honored by the award, and heartened and excited to see breakfast highlight the academic achievement of local students.

Update on local opioid fight

Jeff Jones, executive lead for the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress in Bartholomew County, said the local fight against opioid and related abuse eventually will include three local treatment centers and will entail as many as 50 projects by about April to attack the problem.

Jones, a 2014 Cummins Inc. retiree and a volunteer as part of the broad local substance abuse initiative, spoke briefly at Monday’s 21st Annual CommUNITY Breakfast Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.

He said he is optimistic that the community can win the fight against addiction. Yet, he offered a caution: “There are no quick fixes.”

Scholarship winners

The local African American Pastors Alliance awarded a $500 scholarship each to four local students at Monday’s 21st Annual CommUNITY Breakfast Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.

They are:

  • Damon Hunter, Columbus Signature Academy – New Tech senior with a 3.8 grade-point average. His activities include Columbus North High School football and track.
  • Krysjahn Johnson, a Columbus East High School senior honored especially for her leadership abilities and her work in courses such as Advanced Placement English Language and Composition.
  • Jahna Smiley, a Columbus North High School senior who has been a three-year basketball player and a four-year track athlete planning to major in nueroscience and exercise science at Morehead State University. She has a 3.8 grade-point average.
  • Courtney Jackson, already studying at the Ross University School of Medicine in Miramar, Florida.
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Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.