By TRAVIS MORSE
MT. VERNON — To keynote speaker Teresa Haley, the importance of Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at Cedarhurst was not only to honor the legendary civil rights leader, but to keep his dream alive for future generations.
Haley, president of the Springfield branch of the NAACP, gave a rousing speech at Monday’s gathering, urging those in attendance to get more involved in their community and to fight for positive change.
“We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go,” Haley said prior to her presentation. “And the time is now. A lot of the things that I’m going to be talking about, the time is now to stand up and fight, the time is now to do what’s right, the time is now to take a stand, the time is now to do what you can.”
Roughly 250 people attended Monday’s event, which was the 29th Annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, sponsored by the Jefferson County branch of the NAACP.
This was the first year for the event’s new venue, at the Cedarhurst Center for the Arts. Rev. Ron Lash, president of the Jefferson County NAACP, said the new location helps show the public another side of the organization.
“We do have an elegant side,” Lash said. “We want everyone to see that we’re a part of the community and that we promote unity in the community.”
Event chairperson Rev. Erie Patton said her hope was for Monday’s celebration to promote togetherness and to reach more people.
The move to Cedarhurst has met with a positive response so far, Patton said. Previously, the event was held at the Mt. Vernon Holiday Inn.
Haley began her remarks Monday by describing the Springfield Race Riot of 1908, which led to the formation of the NAACP.
The riot occurred after two African-American prisoners were transferred out of the city jail to protect them from a lynch mob.
Many white citizens then rioted in black neighborhoods, destroying property and committing murder, Haley said. The two black prisoners had been falsely accused of raping a white woman, Haley said.
“People fought, bled and died for our right to be here,” Haley said.
Haley encouraged local residents to get involved with the NAACP and to attend city council meetings and school board meetings to have their voices heard.
“Everyone can serve and the time for serving is right now,” Haley said. “You have to begin to make history.”
Monday’s ceremony also featured remarks by Mt. Vernon Mayor Mary Jane Chesley and Jefferson County Board Chairman Robert White, as well as musical performances and a Black History presentation by Carleka Spann.
In addition, NAACP Freedom Awards were presented to Sonja Ligon, Rae Cummins, Kischa Jackson and Ashley Self.
An MLK Scholarship was also presented to Sierra Tate.