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Evoking MLK for Unity Day Celebration

Philadelphia, Miss., Mayor James Young hoped those listening to his speech Monday left a little less selfish than when they came and motivated to turn words into actions.

“I hope I said something that inspired people, of all colors,” he said later.

Young, who since 2009 has served as mayor of the central Mississippi town of 7,500, spoke during the 28th annual Unity Day Celebration, an event organized and sponsored by Fort Wayne’s Martin Luther King Jr. Club and held at Grand Wayne Center.

The daylong celebration included remarks from Fort Wayne’s own Mayor Tom Henry, dance and choral performances, a raffle and worship.

Young’s remarks followed the day’s theme, “The Bridge for a Bridge Builder.” He said that King and other civil rights leaders in the 1960s built a bridge between the era of Jim Crow laws in the south to a new day when blacks are afforded more rights.

This bridge allowed Young to rise up and achieve what no black man had before him, serving as the first black mayor of the small Mississippi town, which he said at one point was one of the “most notoriously racist cities in America.”

Martin Luther King Jr. participated in a march that ended in Philadelphia, Miss., where he gave a speech at the Neshoba County Courthouse located there.

The small town of about 7,500 people is located not far from the border of Alabama. Young was born and raised there and doesn’t feel inferior coming from such a racially charged area of the South – in fact, he said it’s made him stronger. He spoke about his childhood there, describing a life growing up as a young black male in rural Mississippi.

“I don’t want you all to forget where we come from,” he told the audience of about 150.

He said he came from a place where he was “judged by the color of my skin, not by the content of my character,” referencing a line from King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Young’s words stirred memories for Alice Stephens, a member of the local MLK Club who attended the event Monday. She said much of what Young spoke of echoed her own upbringing during the 1960s.

She hoped that the young people in the audience growing up during a time when they enjoy many of the same freedoms as white people would pay attention to the struggle of those who grew up during a different time.

But Young said he didn’t come all the way to Fort Wayne to tell a sad story. His is a story of triumph, a story about a man from a race once perceived as subhuman who now leads a town, he said.

“Out of the dark echoes of our history, a man thought to be a zero is now CEO,” he said.

Sharonda Stanford attended the event to bring her children and nephew to show them the significance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and help them learn how far blacks have come.

“The younger generations are losing the point of the day. To many of them it was just a day off school,” she said.

Young arrived in Fort Wayne Saturday night and was able to see for himself Fort Wayne’s own memorial to King: The Martin Luther King Bridge on Clinton Street leading into downtown.

“It’s a great reminder not only of the cost of freedom but also the longevity of the fight,” he said of the memorial.

In his speech, Young encouraged the older members of the audience to lift up those younger to continue that fight, not just for black Americans but for all people.

“Do better. Do more,” he said. “Make a change in your community … lift up the bridge builders that will bend but don’t break.”

sarah.janssen@jg.net

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