Every speaker at the 2018 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration at the University of South Carolina Aiken on Sunday repeated part or all of the same quotation from the civil rights leader: “Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
It was the theme of the observance, held jointly each year by Aiken Technical College and USC Aiken, which honored young people who competed in an essay or poster contest, and two college students and a local lawyer who exemplify King’s quote.
Along the way, there was singing, praying, clapping and many rounds of applause.
Aiken Tech welding major Victoria Shekastehband, USC Aiken student government member Travis Hardee and lawyer Everett Chandler were given Human and Civil Rights Champion Awards.
Twelve students from kindergarten through high school were honored as winners – six in the essay contest and six in the poster competition. After they received their awards, Aiken City Councilwoman Lessie Price, the event’s master of ceremonies, asked their parents to stand and directed the large crowd to give them a standing ovation.
State Sen. Mia S. McLeod, the event’s keynote speaker, held herself up as an example of “how far we have come since the days of Dr. King.” She is the first woman to represent Richland County in the state Senate, and was the first woman to represent District 79 in the House before that. She served in the House six years before winning election to the Senate.
Not only can a woman of color now walk through the front doors of a building like USC Aiken’s Convocation Center, but she can also enroll and graduate from a school such as USC Aiken “and serve in same House chamber where she interned as a student,” McLeod said.
But that doesn’t mean everything’s perfect, she said. While there are more black legislators in Columbia, they have a weaker collective voice, and there are more women, “but we have allowed ourselves to be divided by politics,” she said. There’s more quantity, she said, not necessarily more quality.
She referenced the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston as a sign of hatred that has not yet been put to rest and decried efforts to suppress black voters.
When faced with roadblocks, turn the “no factor” into the “know factor,” she encouraged the audience.
But above all, she said, reminding them of the event’s theme, “Be a blessing to someone else.”
Then she closed with King’s words.