Friday, January 23, 2009

Nashville leaders reflect on King legacy at birthday celebration

Vivian Wilhoite
Vivian Wilhoite, John Seigenthaler, Lipscomb's Director of Multicultural Affairs Tenielle Buchanan, and Joyce Searcy Lipscomb University If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would certainly be joyful to see the inauguration of Barack Obama on Tuesday, Jan. 20, but his joy would not be truly complete until the nation eliminates poverty, homelessness and inequality, former Nashville Vice Mayor Howard Gentry Jr. told a crowd of hundreds of Lipscomb students, faculty and friends on Tuesday. Gentry, who now serves as CEO of the Nashville Public Benefit Foundation, shared his childhood experiences growing up in segregated Nashville at the Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration held by the Office of Multicultural Affairs at Lipscomb University. He was one of a four-person panel that shared their experiences growing up during the civil rights era and in a post-King world. Gentry recounted how his family was the second African-American family to move onto Nashville’s 22nd Avenue; how they were among the first African-Americans to swim in the public swimming pools and play in Centennial Park; how he was a member of the first Boy Scout troop to integrate Camp Boxwell. Such small everyday battles must continue even today as our nation still battles the ills of society brought on by inequality for all races. The election of an African-American President is less important than what Barack Obama does in the position to solve poverty and homelessness in American society, Gentry said. “That fight is not over,” echoed Joyce Searcy, CEO of Bethlehem Centers, who grew up in Yazoo City, Miss., while the South was still grappling with the effects of integration and King’s influence. “It is very important that we still fight,” said Vivian Wilhoite, Metropolitan Councilwoman for District 29. In fact, she challenged each student there to step outside their comfort zone and consider ways they can each promote equality among all the students of many ethnicities attending Lipscomb. Also on the panel was Tennessean Publisher Emeritus and former civil rights negotiator John Seigenthaler, 81, who had a first-hand experience with the violence encountered by the civil rights movement. While working for the U.S. Justice Department, Seigenthaler served as chief negotiator with the governor of Alabama during the Freedom Rides, and during one incident was attacked and injured by a mob of Klansmen. Seigenthaler noted that with the election of Obama and with commemoration events like the Lipscomb panel, America is not yet a perfect world, but it is certainly a “more perfect world.” “Lipscomb has done exceptionally well to bring them here today because each person at this table represents a small piece of King’s dream,” he told the crowd. The birthday celebration also featured a moving poetry reading by Stephanie Pruitt, live music by Bill Lee McCleskey and birthday cake. Among the hundreds in the audience, one alumna Odell Buggs, who attended Lipscomb in the 1980s, observed that she was impressed with the gathering to honor King and the number of minority faces in the audience, saying they were a testament to how much the university has changed over the years. Gentry also praised the younger generation for their commitment to volunteerism and improvements in society. “We have a big gap to fill,” he told the students after a question about the gap between young and old, “but don’t for a second think we aren’t seeing your efforts.”

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