There was plenty of reflection, songs and prayer Monday at Grand Wayne Center as Fort Wayne residents gathered to honor the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr.
Monday’s event was the Martin Luther King Jr. Club’s 31st annual Unity Day Celebration. The event featured prominent local, state and federal officials including Gov. Mike Pence, U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd, and Mayor Tom Henry, who proclaimed Jan. 18, 2016, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Fort Wayne. Civil rights activist and historian Lessie M. James, from San Jose, California, delivered the keynote address.
The Rev. Bill McGill, senior pastor at Imani Baptist Church, gave a reading of King’s 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech – to a thunderous standing ovation – and Fort Wayne Police Chief Garry Hamilton was given a plaque commemorating his service as the city’s first African-American police chief.
"We’re honored to be here today, and I appreciate the invitation for us to come and share in this auspicious day," McGill said, before greeting the audience in Hebrew, Arabic, Hindi and English. "But let me say before I do what I’ve been asked to do, we must be careful and not celebrate the man and then ignore his plan."
During his speech, Pence described the civil rights icon as a personal hero. Like Henry, Pence also presented a proclamation declaring Monday Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Indiana’s 92 counties. Pence also recounted the story of his trip to Selma, Alabama, in 2010 with his wife and children for the 45th anniversary of the march in protest of segregation and in support of voting rights for African-Americans.
"I grew up in a small town in southern Indiana. Dr. King was one of the heroes of my youth, and when his life was cut short, I understood the power and the importance that this man would play in the life of our nation," he said. "I think it is right and altogether fitting that on this day we remember the leader of the civil rights movement, a man who … took the American founders at their word, who saw the Declaration of Independence as a promissory note that all men are created equal, and he held a nation accountable."
Pence added that King should be remembered not only as a great civil rights leader, but also as a great American leader and a man of faith.
Commitment to Indiana’s civil rights laws is of utmost importance, Pence told the crowd, noting it’s important that Indiana celebrate King’s legacy of racial equality.
"We’d also do well to rededicate ourselves each and every day to his vision of equality of opportunity, to rejecting the evil of racial discrimination in all of its forms. That begins, of course, with strictly enforcing all of our civil rights laws in the state and to that we commit ourselves," he said.
Pence’s comments come at a time when the General Assembly is considering an amendment to the state’s civil rights statute, which would include protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers.
During his State of the State address last week, Pence said he does not support discrimination against LGBT people but placed more emphasis on protecting religious freedom.
He said he would not sign any bill that he believes infringes upon Hoosiers’ religious beliefs.