Eleven-year-old Sampson Middle student Irma Bannerman wasn’t born when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, but she believes strongly that as a young person it is her duty to help make that dream a reality.
She was doing her part Monday as a member of the newly formed MLK Community Youth Chorus, lifting her voice with some two dozens others during the annual Multi-Cultural Business Committee’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. business reception, held at the Agri-Exposition Center.
“Dr. King was about peace and equality. Now I have to do my part. It doesn’t matter what color someone’s skin is, we’re supposed to like and respect all,” Bannerman said. “I already do.”
Hundreds of people gathered for the annual MLK event, this year focused on the youth and their place in King’s dream, as the committee “passed the baton” to a new generation.
“Today we are going to celebrate a little differently,” said Dee Bryant, co-chairwoman of the annual event in her opening remarks. “As we always do, we wanted to present a meaningful program to remember and honor Dr. King and express our gratitude for his actions that have helped to bring us freedom, justice and equality.”
But Bryant said, the committee wanted to do all those things by involving the youth of the community. “At some point, we have to let go and realize that progress means change, change means growth and growth brings success.”
To that end, Bryant pointed out, the committee turned to the youth. “We have to understand that it’s time to let go of the reins and allow them to show us what we’ve taught them. We’ve been charged with passing the torch, and today we have.”
Fellow co-chairwoman Patty Cherry echoed Bryant’s remarks as she praised the youth for their diligence in practicing for the event and for showing everyone what great talent was within Sampson County.
“I’m so excited about this program. These youth are going to do everything in their power to take you to the mountaintop today. When you hear this awesome group of young people, that’s where you will go,” Cherry assured.
Without question, the audience took Cherry’s words to heart, applauding the choir as they first led the audience in the Negro National Anthem and then breaking out in rousing gospel songs that not only had people on their feet time after time in standing ovations but had them grinning from ear to ear and clapping along through many of the selections.
Many of the audience members were moved to tears as one of the youngest choir members, 9-year-old Faith Wilson, stepped to the microphone for her solo, her early jitters turning into a moving rendition of “Amazing God.” She was joined by teen Adrian Carter who performed a creative dance number as Wilson sang, the choir providing the backup vocals.
“This was absolutely moving,” said Sheriff Jimmy Thornton after the event. “It just shows us the quality of young people we have in this community. They did an outstanding job.”
With the young people as the focus, Clinton Mayor Lew Starling used his new dad status as the focal point of his remarks. After delighting the crowd with a story about his visit to Babies R Us, the mayor then turned serious, recalling his visit Sunday to the nursery to see his newborn daughter.
“The television was on in the nursery and it was playing Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and as I looked at my daughter and that nursery full of babies, some white, some African-American, some Hispanic, I thought isn’t it my challenge, our challenge, for these children to grow up not even knowing what racism is?
“Isn’t it our challenge for the babies being born today to make racism extinct. … for them to think about racism in the same way we talk about dinosaurs? There’s no reason we can’t make it extinct. It’s our job,” Starling admonished.
Dr. King, the mayor stressed, did so much to bring this nation to where it is today. “It’s in our hands now. We owe it to our children, to my children and yours, to our nieces and nephews …. to make this world a place where racism is a terrible thing of the past.”
Talking with members of the youth chorus before the event, that is exactly their belief.
Noni Stewart, 11, of Mintz Christian Academy, said she believed it was her job to talk about loving one another to everyone she meets. “Being here today means a lot to me. To be a part of this chorus and to make a difference. I hope we do.”
“I’m a Christian, and our job is to reach out to all people. It’s not about race, not at all.”
Shania Skinner, 9, from Butler Avenue School, said being a part of the King celebration reminds her of the freedoms she now has. And she believes she has a responsibility to get along with others and teach others to get along, too. “I need to talk about freedom, and use my voice to do good.”
Isaiah Robins, 11, of Union Middle said he owed it to others to work hard, be successful and carry on what Dr. King started. “I want to do all I can do to ensure that we aren’t segregated again, to put race aside.”
L’Darion Simpson, 12, agrees. “It’s up to us to continue the tradition of Dr. King and work hard to stop racism for all people. We just need to get along, and that has to start with us.”
And 15-year-old Diondris Butler of Clinton High said she believed she had to do her part to not only celebrate freedom but ensure freedom. “It’s not up to someone else, it’s up to me. We have to go out and care about one another, talk about caring and help spread the word.”
Returning to the stage after the chorus finished, Bryant reminded the audience of how important it is to lift young people up.
“These young people are our future. If we want to keep them from having to go see Sheriff Thornton, then we have to provide them positive examples and give them positive re-enforcement, offer them constructive things to do and them help them do it, like this youth chorus.
“They don’t want to stop with today; they want to continue and we need to help them do that,” Bryant urged.
N.C. Sen. Brent Jackson, who was among dozens of elected officials in attendance Monday, praised the youth chorus and the event. “To me this day is about progress in our nation, continuing the efforts Dr. King started. We are all created equal in God’s eyes and we have to remember to treat everyone that way.”
“These young people remind us what it’s all about. I am glad I was a part of this day.”