COVID-19 limited physical attendance at the City of Monroe’s 42nd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Salute, but the spirit of the event persevered through streaming.
The 2021 theme of “One People, One Community, OneRoe” echoed through the various speeches from those recognized.
In his opening remarks Thursday, Mayor Friday Ellis reflected on a 1965 commencement speech King delivered at Oberlin College.
“In that speech, titled ‘Remaining Awake through the Great Revolution’, Dr. King told the graduating class, ‘We must learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools.'” Mayor Friday Ellis said in his opening remarks Thursday.
Ellis said he thought about the events last week in Washington D.C. and in months and years past and wondered what King would be thinking on the eve of his birthday and what King would ask of others.
“What I believe we could expect, given history, is that we would get some good old-fashioned truth telling mixed with a message of hope and a charge to fight for something greater than self in a relentless pursuit of unity and justice,” Ellis said. “I believe we can use that in our country and our community today to honor his memory because it helps plant us squarely on a path for something different and something better, a more unified existence, one that Dr. King fought so courageously for, especially in a time when speaking up wasn’t safe. Unity. It is such a small word but with endless possibility and power.”
The traditional awards of the Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday salute were presented along with a new honor, the Jamie Mayo Young Leaders Award presented to Vance Price.
“The Mayor Jamie Mayo Young Leader Award honors an emerging leader in the community,” Ellis explained. “The awardee will represent the young and the next generation of leadership.”
Both Mayo and Price received the award, and Mayo took part in the inaugural presentation.
Valerie Fields, the University of Louisiana Monroe Vice-President of Student Affairs, served as the keynote speaker at the event.
Jamie Mayo Young Leaders Award – Rev. Vance Price
Price is the pastor at New Saint James Baptist Church in Monroe and involved in various community programs, including many focused on youth services.
Price said to receive an award named for Mayo was a humbling experience after standing on the same stage five years ago to serve as a keynote speaker at the event.
“I’m grateful and appreciative to Mayor Ellis and his committee and staff for allowing us to serve in our community,” Price continued after being surprised with the award. “… I thank God for both of these amazing men.”
James Sharp Jr. Justice Award – Steve Jefferson
Jefferson was recognized for over four decades of experience helping locals fight for justice. He said when he was notified about the award, he felt it was a mistake.
“When I (had case with Sharp), I knew I was in good hands because James always did what he said he was going to do, and you can’t say that today,” Jefferson said. “… He always conducted himself as a gentleman, and back then it was hard for him and he had a lot of adversity because he was black, but I always respected him, and I’m really honored to receive this award.”
B.D. Robinson Unity Award – John Rea
Rea has been active in community development and growth since 1972 and believes one should invest time and money into making their community better. Places of service include United Way, the Monroe Chamber of Commerce and the University of Louisiana Monroe.
“This is a great community and great people have gone before us to make it even better,” Rea said, “and it’s a challenge to us to be unified. The greatest symbol of unity is exactly what we just saw right here — Mayor Mayo and Mayor Ellis. The Bible says inside a battered body — and I’m a battered body — is a treasure, and inside that treasure are skills, talents and abilities to make the place where you are a better place.”
Lillie “Granny” Goins Community Service Award – Billy Varner
Varner is the executive director at DeSiard Street Shelter. The shelter has advocated for the hungry and needy members of the local community for over 20 years, and Varner said he accepted the award on behalf of the board and the staff at the shelter.
“As several have said, we have a wonderful community, but what we need to realize is that homelessness and poverty are a part of our community,” Varner said. “Those individuals who are suffering are also a part of our community, and we are a part of theirs. When you think about what those individuals are going through, it could be you. It could be I.”
Varner said Granny Goins set the stage, and a variety of organizations are now continuing her work.
“It is not an individual endeavor,” Varner said. “It is an endeavor our entire community has to take on. As we share the responsibility to be the people that we need to be in this community, we all get an opportunity to participate. I often think about when I go to work, it’s a joy because I never go what is going to happen. I never know what is going to be in front of me, but there is always something we can do to help one another. What I’ve found is the more I help someone else, the less I think about me, and that is humbling within itself.”
Morris Henry Carroll Education Award – Sylvia Brass
Brass worked in education for over 47 years including 17 years as principal at Minnie Ruffin Elementary School where she was a mother figure to hundreds of students.
Brass said she accepted the award on behalf of all the hundreds and thousands of teachers and reflected on prior discussions regarding intellectual capital and poverty in the community.
“At the places I’ve taught, there is no intellectual poverty,” Brass said. “What is going on is we have not yet learned how to bring all of this out there from these children. We’ve got to learn how to bring it out.”
Brass said one method of teaching does not work for all children and that accountability measures can smother teachers and children as they strive to educate and learn.
“I pray for the day we can go back to the way it was when I first started,” Brass said. “Use your creativity teachers. This is where you start, and this is where you get these children by the end of the year. Let us do what we do best.”
Jack Howard Public Service Award – Monroe Fire Department Chief Terry Williams
Williams has served for three decades as a firefighter in the city of Monroe and eight years as chief.
“My mission is to serve the citizens of Monroe and the many people who come to visit our city on a daily basis,” Williams said. “When I think about accepting the award, I can’t accept it alone. I have to accept on behalf of so many. Mayor Mayo, thank you for appointing me. Chief Bryant, thank you for your leadership.”
Williams also said many others have worked with the men and women of the fire department to take care of the city, including current and past city councils and other department heads.
“Mayor Ellis, I have to thank you, and I have to accept this award on behalf of so many who care about our citizens and work hard every day to take care of them,” Williams added.
Nashall Harris Humanitarian Award – Curtis Eberts
Eberts is executive director of Ascent Health, a non-profit mental health provider in Monroe.
Eberts accepted the award on behalf of the 70 staff members in Monroe who were out working with families to address the health disparities among the poor in the community.
“We have families just down the street from here who have one light bulb, and when they walk us around their home, they unscrew the lightbulb and take it to the next room and screw it in to show us around,” Eberts said. “They have to have a garden hose from their neighbor’s spigot so they have water in their homes. We have the opportunity to work with some of the poorest of the poor during some of the most desperate times in their lives.”
Eberts said he is very grateful to work with a diligent staff locating the resources necessary to make a difference in the community.
Martin Luther King Jr. Trailblazer Award – Abe Pierce III
Former Mayor Abe Pierce was recognized with the Trailblazer Award. It was accepted by Jimmy Bryant who read comments from Pierce.
Pierce was the first African American man elected as mayor of Monroe and also served for 26 years on the Ouachita Parish Police Jury.
In his letter, Pierce said it was a great honor and privilege to accept the award.
“It is certainly a very proud and humbling experience for me,” Pierce said. “I especially want to thank everyone who has helped me and kept me motivated to achieve my goals. I also extend my sincere appreciation and gratitude to everyone who has worked with me throughout my career including my co-workers, friends and family because it would not have been possible to make innovative changes without their collaboration.”
Pierce concluded his letter with heartfelt thanks and a quote from King: “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”