MLK tradition tackles tough issues, marks change for YWCA

The head table leads the singing of “We Shall Overcome” at the end of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Business and Professional Breakfast.

“What would Dr. King be doing if he were here now?”

That was Mayor Joe Riley’s big question at the 15th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Business and Professional Breakfast. He would do what many in the community are doing: work with organizations such as the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative, Lunch Buddies, the Lowcountry Food Bank and others to assist those in need and improve quality of life for all, Riley said.

The mayor credited Christine Jackson, who retired in 2004 after 36 years as the YWCA Greater Charleston’s executive director, with starting the city’s MLK birthday observances 43 years ago and helping to organize the breakfast. He said it is important for everyone to set aside “contemplative time” for paying tribute to King’s accomplishments and leadership.

Kathleen Rodgers, executive director of the YWCA, noted that the breakfast signaled the start of a new era. The YWCA recently sold its property on Coming Street and now is searching for a new home; and the organization is looking to focus more on technology training in an effort to fulfill its mission to eliminate racism and empower women.

Turnout on Tuesday morning reached about 600 for the sold-out event, an indication of its importance, Rodgers said.

“It captures the unity in Charleston,” organizer Mike Whack said, echoing Rodgers. “This is the one time (during the year) when this many business leaders come together.”

The first Joseph P. Riley Jr. Vision Award for model corporate citizenship was presented by Anita Zucker and Elizabeth Colbert-Busch to Mary Thornley, president of Trident Technical College, and posthumously to Theodore Stern, president emeritus of the College of Charleston. Both were named as recipients in December.

Thornley noted that Trident Tech’s student enrollment closely mirrors the demographics of the wider community. “That is no accident,” she said. It’s a core value of a school “that believes in opportunity for everybody.”

Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corp., which operates nine brands and generates $15 billion in annual revenues, delivered the keynote address. Donald, 59, receives total compensation of nearly $8 million a year. He recounted his rise from poverty in New Orleans, his early experiences with segregation and the encouragement he received from his older sisters and teachers.

In school every day, he heard: “Gentlemen, prepare yourselves, you are going to run the world.” Never mind that the message contradicted the bleak reality outside of school.

On one occasion, he sneaked into a whites-only men’s room and noticed how clean it was compared with the dark and rusty blacks-only bathroom. When he emerged he saw the fear in his father’s eyes.

“Don’t you ever go into that bathroom again,” he told his young son. But young Donald was not satisfied, asking: Why is it so neat and clean and ours is so dingy? “We clean theirs and no one cleans ours,” his father replied.

Donald said that King saw economic inequality as a fundamental flaw of society and spoke of “the other America” whose daily ugliness “transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.”

“I doubt there is a grand solution; we must just each do our part,” Donald said.

Then, referring to the recent unrest in Ferguson, Mo., near which Donald has a home, he asked the room: “Just where are we today, really?”

Three-quarters of young adults in the U.S. are ineligible for military service because they have no high school diploma, they are too obese, they have a criminal record or they fail to pass the entrance exam, he said. Yet, he added, there is much about the social order we can control — “how we as individuals show up, and how we as individuals treat each other.”

But it was Jada Orr, a freshman at the Charleston County School of the Arts, who stole the show with her description of young people today who are “too often satisfied with what they have” and fail to mobilize for constructive change.

Orr said the movie “Selma” caused her to consider the differences between the educated activists of yesteryear and students today with their “lack of understanding of what hard work is.”

If a mother must fear every day that her son might be gunned down, “that’s not justice,” she said. “Someone in my generation can change that.”

Civil rights activists in 1965 faced death during the Selma-to-Montgomery march, she noted. “That’s the kind of courage it takes. It all begins with that personal decision of being willing to finish what Dr. King started.”

The room burst into applause.

“There is a new Edmund Pettus Bridge to get over,” she said, referring to the “Bloody Sunday” civil rights landmark in Selma.