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Saturday, April 20, 2024
The Observer

South Bend community celebrates MLK Day over breakfast

More than 800 attendees filed into the South Bend Century Center exhibit hall to commence the city’s 37th annual day of celebration for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Monday.

The 7:30 a.m. Community Service Recognition Breakfast, complete with vocal performances, award presentations and a keynote speaker, was the mere opening act in a lineup of events honoring King’s legacy locally this year.

“In South Bend, we have a good tradition of celebrating Dr. King’s birthday with a day on and not a day off,” South Bend Mayor James Mueller told The Observer.

Breakfast organizers included the MLK Foundation of St. Joseph County, Project Impact, South Bend Heritage and the Civil Rights Heritage Center at Indiana University South Bend. The University of Notre Dame was a gold-level sponsor, while Holy Cross College contributed at the bronze sponsorship level. Proceeds from the celebration go toward the MLK Foundation of St. Joseph County scholarship fund.

Rev. Ray E. Owens of Macedonia Church served as master of ceremonies, welcoming patrons on behalf of the State of Indiana MLK Holiday Commission.

“I get to see all kinds of Martin Luther King celebrations all across the state. I say it every year. It's true. I don't get paid for saying it. It's just true. The best celebration I have ever seen is always at St. Joseph County,” Owens said.

Showing off the talents of two hometown vocalists, Janet Norris and Makeda Grier, was next on the agenda — Grier followed Norris’ “America the Beautiful” rendition with a performance of “Lift Every Voice.”

MLK Holiday Celebration 2023 Planning Committee Chair Gladys Muhammad, accompanied by Mueller, then took the stage to present the first awards of the morning. Muhammad, who has been on the planning committee for the MLK Day celebration since its inception, thanked her fellow volunteers and reflected on the day’s meaning.

“The Martin Luther King foundation was established in 1986. We were established to bring our community together in a cooperative fashion — both Mishawaka and South Bend, Notre Dame and all of our banks and all the entities that you see here today — to bring them together to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King and all the things that he stood for to promote brotherly love and justice for all,” Muhammad said.

Standing beside Muhammad, Mueller read a proclamation acknowledging Notre Dame professor of the practice Michael Morris for his role in fostering entrepreneurship empowerment to those in the South Bend area operating under conditions of economic hardship.

Before a break in the program to eat breakfast, Mueller recognized Karrah Herring with a key to the City of South Bend. In 2020, Herring, a graduate of the South Bend Community School Corporation, was appointed to Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb’s cabinet as the state’s inaugural Chief Equity Inclusion and Opportunity Officer.

Subsequent to the meal, and after a recitation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the rostrum was passed over to keynote speaker Girard Jenkins.

As vice president of operations for the Midwest and West at McKissack & McKissack, Jenkins leads ongoing and new projects for the construction management company in territories like Indiana and Illinois.

Founded in 1905, McKissack & McKissack is the oldest minority-owned architecture and construction firm in the United States. The company, which is directed today by twin daughters from the McKissack family, has engineered projects such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D. C.

Jenkins addressed the challenges of growing up in his grandfather’s Alabama household and the enduring racism in the construction and architecture industry. Above all, Jenkins underscored the importance of family and the community involvement that accords parenthood.

“I have prided myself in always being able to be involved in the community,” Jenkins said. “If my kids were involved in anything, guess what? I was going to be right there.”

Following the keynote address, South Bend Mayor Mueller took back the stage alongside City of Mishawaka Mayor Dave Wood — time for the pair to allocate their annual Drum Major Awards for community service.

Mayor Mueller recognized a triad of African American city leaders: Lynn Coleman of Let’s Turn It Around, Kimberly Green-Reeves of Beacon Health Systems and Jessie Whitaker of Project Impact. Coleman, a longtime South Bend police officer who is now a community trauma liaison at Memorial Hospital, ran against Mayor Mueller in the 2019 South Bend mayoral Democratic primary.

Mayor Wood shared his three drum major awards among four recipients, two from Electronics, Inc. and two from Vietnam Veterans of America. All four men were honored for their commitment serving the needs of local veterans.

“What an awesome crowd. It’s great to be back with so many friends, honoring and celebrating this great American. We do that by honoring people right here in our community who live to the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King,” Wood said.

The final of the morning’s laurels to go out was the Roland Kelly Award, named in memory of the departed South Bend public servant and citizen.

For the first time in the award’s 15-year history, two recipients were honored. Indiana State Senator David Niezgodski received the first plaque. In an unprogrammed move, presenters Coleman and Randy Kelly, the son of Roland, then bestowed a second plaque, which was hidden in the podium, to Muhammad for her abiding commitment to the MLK Foundation of St. Joseph County.

Two additional musical performances closed out the ceremony. Grier sang an encore, “Stand Up, Take My People with Me,” and legendary tenor George Shirley performed “Oh Freedom.” Shirley was the first African American tenor to perform in a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. The Indianapolis native received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2015.

Sam Centellas, executive director of CDFI Friendly South Bend, an organization that supports minority women in small business, loves coming to “cross-sector” events like the Community Service Recognition Breakfast, which assemble the likes of bankers, social workers and teachers.

“[Breakfast attendees] are doing impactful work, primarily African American focused, but also community-engaged work in general, and [the celebration] is a really cool recognition of that,” Centellas said. “I think talking about collaboration is a key part about how everybody has to have a role. You can’t leave it to certain people to fix the problem. You have to be involved.”

Mueller added that community partners spend all year preparing the MLK celebration to showcase local initiatives and look ahead to the future.

“This is great to get all the community leaders together, or as many as we can fit the Century Center, to make sure that we're on the same page and are supporting each other,” Mueller said.

Contact Peter Breen at