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MCC’s 2021 MLK luncheon raises $110K for scholarships; speaker says our individual choices can ‘break down inequality’

January 20, 2021
By Tim Engle

2021 Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Luncheon Virtual Event Chris Evans, Inspiration Award Winner
Chris Evans, Alvin Brooks Kansas Citian Inspiration Award winner

2021 Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Luncheon Virtual Event Sike with MLK portrait
Sike with his MLK portrait, which sold for $7,500 during the virtual event

2021 Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Luncheon Virtual Event Keynote Speaker, Nikole Hannah-Jones.
Keynote speaker Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times Magazine

A little more than a week after a violent mob attacked the U.S. Capitol, and a few days before the inauguration of President Joe Biden, Nikole Hannah-Jones reflected on where America stood.

She viewed the siege at the Capitol as a "white backlash," and said the thousands of National Guard troops in Washington had to be on hand "largely because of this idea that Black Americans are not legitimate citizens in this democracy." Former President Trump and others, after all, challenged the outcome of the presidential election by alleging voter fraud in cities and states with large Black populations.

Hannah-Jones, the face of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, spoke Jan. 15 at the Metropolitan Community College Chancellor’s Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Luncheon. The event, which was held virtually, raised $110,778 for student scholarships, according to MCC Foundation Executive Director Jessica Ramirez.

"White Americans have to decide," Hannah-Jones said, "are we a multiracial democracy, or that some people’s votes matter and some don’t … Are we going to share power with all our citizens?"

Although loath to offer advice on how the country can move forward — "Journalists point out problems and leave it to others how to fix them" — Hannah-Jones said our individual choices "are what sustain or break down inequality." Noting the history of segregated education in the U.S., one of those choices is "the schools you send your children to." It’s not enough to put a Black Lives Matter sign in your yard, she said.

She won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary (among other accolades) for her work on the 1619 Project, an examination of slavery’s impact on the United States. The New York Times Magazine launched the enterprise in 2019 — 400 years after the first enslaved Africans were brought to the English colony of Virginia.

The MCC event included the announcement of the latest winners of the Chancellor’s Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship, which covers one year of tuition:

  • Basant Chaudhary, an engineering student at MCC-Maple Woods
  • Chyanne Freeman, an associate in arts student at MCC-Blue River
  • Tuyen Nguyen, a dental assisting student at MCC-Penn Valley
  • Munira Nuru, a biology student at MCC-Longview
  • Gabriel Waag, a lineman student at MCC-Business & Technology

>> Watch a video about the scholarship recipients

Another highlight of the MLK program was the creation of a Martin Luther King Jr. portrait by Kansas City muralist Phil "Sike Style" Shafer. Commissioned by the College, the 4-foot-by-5-foot spray paint-and-ink artwork of a contemplative MLK was auctioned during the program.

The winning bid of $7,500 came from Matt Johnson on behalf of his employer, CommunityAmerica Credit Union, the presenting sponsor of the luncheon. Ramirez said CommunityAmerica is donating the painting to the College. Johnson is chair of the MCC Foundation Board of Directors. Attendees who donated at least $50 during the event will receive a 12-by-18-inch poster of Shafer’s painting.

MCC’s 2021 MLK event also saw the inaugural presentation of the Alvin Brooks Kansas Citian Inspiration Award. Chancellor Kimberly Beatty described its goal as honoring everyday citizens who better their community and model traits of Dr. King.

The first winner was Chris Evans, who started the I Am King Foundation, a program for boys that uses baseball to teach character, discipline and integrity. The young men are called "Kings." The namesake of this new award, Alvin Brooks, is a longtime KC civic leader with ties to MCC.

>> Watch a video about Chris Evans

"This year has been difficult for all of us, but COVID has hit our students especially hard," Chancellor Beatty said in remarks at the event. Many have one or more members of their household who’ve lost a job. Some students have been forced to work more or care for others, and some had to pause their education. Some were "thrown into an instructional modality" out of reach for them — virtual classes requiring a computer and internet access.

Fortunately, Dr. Beatty said, MCC was able to loan out hundreds of laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots. Donations to the MCC Foundation helped provide emergency grants (to assist students with rent, child care and “other life essentials”) and restaurant vouchers.

Students’ technology challenges during the pandemic prove that the "digital divide" is real and that inequities exist, Dr. Beatty said. "Your continued support helps us mend this gap and others," she told those attending the MLK event.

Kansas City Royals TV commentator Joel Goldberg interviewed Nikole Hannah-Jones, who was at her home in New York. More tidbits from their conversation:

+ On patriotism: As a teenager, Hannah-Jones was appalled by her father’s exhibition of patriotism, like flying the flag in his front yard in Mississippi. He faced discrimination his entire life, she says. He attended segregated schools. He fought for his country. (Black Americans, she added, have fought in every U.S. war, and disproportionately.)

"Patriotism," Hannah-Jones has concluded, "is not about loving your country no matter what." We shouldn’t feel compelled to look away when our nation falls short. In her view, patriotism is really about fighting to make the founders’ ideals true for all Americans.

+ On our educational system: Hannah-Jones says she was "a very nerdy child" who read a lot of history as a kid. She took a Black studies class in high school. She read Lincoln’s speeches about black Americans and the true causes of the Civil War.

Most of us get the "distilled version" of history in high school textbooks, she said, a version whose purpose is nationalism, with a narrative focused on American exceptionalism. Not surprisingly, her 10-year-old daughter, studying the Louisiana Purchase, is "already challenging a bunch of what she’s learning" at school.

Our educational system has failed us, Hannah-Jones believes, and "leaves us ill-equipped to understand the moment we’re in."

+ On George Floyd and sustaining a movement: "It took in this case what I would call a lynching to be broadcast on national TV … for Americans to say, OK, we need to do something," Hannah-Jones said of Floyd’s death last year at the hands of police.

It’s easy to feel daunted by the slow pace of a movement like Black Lives Matter, but Hannah-Jones is calmed by history: "Movements take a very long time to bear fruit." She says the U.S. civil rights movement really began after World War I and picked up speed after World War II, even though it’s most associated with the 1950s and ’60s. So although advocates of social justice struggle with how to sustain their cause, "it takes a long time, and most Americans are never going to be involved in those movements long term."

Bret Bonge and Marquita Miller-Joshua, members of the MCC Foundation board, co-chaired the MLK event committee. Elizabeth Alex, another board member, served as emcee.