Black History Month was celebrated at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital with stories, songs and some of the Memphis sanitation workers behind the iconic “I AM A MAN” marches.
At every turn, the third annual St. Jude Spirit of the Dream event evoked the life’s work and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, where he had come to support sanitation workers in their strike over unsafe conditions.
Elmore Nickelberry, Ozell Ueal and Baxter Leach — veterans of that strike — were honored onstage during the event, which drew 300 to the hospital campus. Two more strike veterans, Rev. Cleophus Smith and H.B. Crockett, also were honored.
In Memphis, during that dark period of our history, men of color were not considered to be men who deserved dignity and respect as a human being. The garbage strike revealed man’s inhumanity toward man.
Herenton presented the awards and also told a story about being a 28-year-old school principal during the strike. He talked about joining marches and wearing an “I AM A MAN” sign in front of City Hall — knowing it could harm his career at a time when he had a young family to support.
“I want to talk about a transformation from a boy to a man — that’s what Dr. King did for me,” said Herenton, who in 1991 became the city’s first elected black mayor.
ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for the hospital, will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death throughout 2018. Plans call for promoting social change through events in Memphis and around the country, and expanding employee community service efforts.
ALSAC President and CEO Richard C. Shadyac Jr. said that 50 years after King’s death, the civil rights leader continues “to inspire, to uplift, to comfort and to rally generations of Americans and people around the world.”
“Folks,” he added, “I am proud to be one of those people.”
The event also featured Dr. King’s words, performed with a preacher’s fire and flair by 7-year-old Hilton Rawls III of Morristown, N.J. Rawls’ family is active in Sunday of Hope, a program through which church congregations can support St. Jude through a special offering.
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” Rawls proclaimed, quoting Dr. King’s “Mountaintop” speech, which was delivered the day before he died. “But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.”
The Spirit of the Dream was hosted by actress Elise Neal and included a concert by singer and songwriter Raheem DeVaughn. The event was organized in partnership with the National Pan-Hellenic Council Memphis Metropolitan Area.
Towanda Peete-Smith, right, accepts from former Mayor A C Wharton, left, the Spirit of the Dream Award that posthumously honored her late husband Bernal Smith II.
New to the event this year was the Spirit of the Dream Award, presented posthumously to Bernal Smith II, president and publisher of the New Tri-State Defender, one of the nation’s oldest African-American newspapers. Smith died in October 2017 at 45.
When Smith died, his city lost “a native son, a civic leader, a visionary, a philanthropist, a humanitarian, the voice of reason in an ever-changing world,” said his widow, Towanda Peete-Smith. “But the Smiths, we lost a son, a brother, a husband, a father, and an uncle.”
A life ending, but that life’s work and legacy continuing — it was the night’s defining theme.
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