By Michael R. Malone, The Children's Trust
In their honor, the lights were dimmed, candles were lit on the tables and their adult mentors joined hands to form a huge circle around the ballroom. The 98 young men, this year's scholarship winners from schools around Miami-Dade County, were then called forward to receive their achievement awards from the 5000 Role Models for Excellence Foundation.
"We love our boys, and they know it", said Sen. Frederica Wilson, founder and director of 5000 Role Models and master of ceremonies at the 15th Annual Unity Scholarship Breakfast, celebrated on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the Jungle Island Ballroom and sponsored by The Children's Trust.
In addition to the scholarship ceremony, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, House Speaker Marco Rubio, BET personality Bobby Jones, a host of local and state legislators, members of the clergy, over a hundred mentors from the 5000 Role Models program and other guests were on hand to celebrate the living legacy of the renowned civil rights leader.
Dr. King stood for so many great things, his words before the Lincoln Memorial are so inspiring and reach a higher place that talk to your soul about doing what's right, said Crist, adding, these young men who received their awards earlier today, you were good to them and hope is in their hearts because of you.
Crist, the keynote speaker, was presented with the 2008 Spirit of Excellence award for his efforts to restore voter rights to felons who have served their time as well as for other civil rights advocacy, including assistance for the family of Martin Lee Anderson, a 14-year-old who was beaten to death in 2006 in a boot-camp youth detention center.
It sounds like a fairness thing to me, like the right thing to do, Crist said, referring to the restoration of voters rights. We believe that when we say that people have paid their debt to society, that they have paid their debt to society. It's about trying to do the right thing.
Restoring rights to felons, providing scholarships for the young men and promoting fairness all honor the legacy of Dr. King, the governor said. When you get a second chance, you have hope, and justice is about giving people hope. Civil rights is about giving people second chances, and first ones.
David Lawrence Jr., chair of The Children's Trust, was presented with a plaque in honor of The Children's Trust's support and efforts in the community.
House Speaker Marco Rubio, of Miami-Dade County, praised Dr. King as a great moral leader, but said he would be saddened because equality still eludes so many African-American and Hispanic women who are left alone to raise children.
Dr. King would be saddened to see the number of children with seven strikes against them, Rubio said. You cannot be right if your people are not right themselves, and increasingly today for too many young men incarceration is more common than graduation.
Referring to King's famous 'I've Been to the Mountaintop' speech, Rubio said, "Dr. King didn't say I think I see it, he affirmed to us that he would make it, and it is the deepest desire of my heart that my 7-year-old daughter will not only see the promised land from the mountain top, but will descend into it."
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez praised Dr. King for his vision and the 5000 Role Model program for providing guidance to young men in the community.
Role models provide priceless service. They are living proof that education and hard work do pay off. Martin Luther King Jr. has taught all of us lessons that justice and equality are an ongoing struggle. We know that his message and his pursuit of true equality is still a work in progress, the mayor said.
Gospel recording artist and role model, Bobby Jones, offered an inspiring rendition of Lift Every Voice and Sing. Jones, whose father was a sharecropper in a small town in western Tennessee, said that injustices he suffered as a boy taught him lessons that motivated him to educate himself and persevere in his dreams.
As part of their scholarship award, the young men were all gifted with $1,500 and assisted in opening back accounts. The winners were chosen by a team of judges.
Recently deceased school board member and community activist, Robert Ingram, was also honored at the event for his long-time support of the Role Model program. Frederica Wilson, then a school principal, launched the program in 1993 as a mentoring program for fatherless boys.
In additional to the Unity Scholarship breakfast, The Children's Trust sponsored a series of MLK events around Miami-Dade County including: the Martin Luther King Parade in West Perrine; Martin Luther King breakfast in Signature Gardens featuring Dr. Anthony Reed of the AME Episcopal District; the Battle of the Bands at Harris Field in Homestead; Miami Gardens 3rd Annual MLK Celebration; and the MLK Parade and Festivities in Liberty City.