QUINCY -- More than 140 Quincy residents, civic leaders and clergy members packed the First Baptist Church, 739 N. Eighth Street, for the Quincy Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's 34th Annual Celebration honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who would have turned 91 earlier this month on his birthday.
Local residents say that King's legacy continues to be felt years after the American civil rights icon was assassinated on a Memphis hotel balcony in 1968.
"If we all had the type of energy and vision like he had, then the world would be a better place," said Crystal Young of Quincy.
Camilla Williams, agreed, saying that King brought the world together through his speeches and philosophy of non-violence protest.
The annual celebration, which featured a variety of speakers and presenters, was headlined by Quincy Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Latonya Brock, who spoke on the need for people to come together.
"I have said many times that not everything in Quincy is bad, that we have some really great things, but that we still have a great way to go," Brock said in an interview after her speech. "I feel the only way we can do it is to do it together, because I believe we are all better together."
It is because of the influence of men and women like Dr. King, that Brock says the cultural landscape of the United States was changed.
"We honor his life, because he left behind such a legacy," Brock said. "Many of us today didn't have to see the signs that said ‘colored only' or ‘whites only' or ‘blacks not allowed.' We didn't have to grow up in a community where schools were segregated intentionally because of race. Because of Dr. King, there is much to celebrate."
Brock repeatedly encouraged attendees during her keynote address to speak up and speak out when they see issues facing both the black and white community in Quincy.
"Many of us are sitting here and we see needs, but we are not willing to put our hands to the plow," said Brock, who went on to describe doing the work of humanity as "the dirtiest work you will ever do."
"When there is brutality in our nation, there is a time to speak up," Brock said. "When there is injustice in our social systems, there is a time to speak up. When our black children are still under-educated, overlooked and under-performing there is a time to speak up. When we live in a community that has over 60% of poverty in Quincy Public Schools, then there is a time to speak up. When we live in a community where truancy is an issue and you have the superintendent of schools begging for people to come out, there is a time to speak up."
She went onto to describe issues associated with poverty such as food insecurity, single parent families, inequities in the judicial system, lack of extra curricular educational opportunities for students of color and low-income families, access to the arts, and more.
Brock said for too long would-be black leaders in Quincy have allowed their white colleagues to speak on behalf of the black community.
"We can not fault white people for doing what we won't do ourselves," Brock said. "It is hard to pray for a community that will not fight for itself."
She encouraged those in attendance to reach out and to join civic groups, community organizations and become more engaged in the community to help bring about change in how the local black populace is perceived in Quincy. She also said the black community should lead the way for other minority groups to find inclusion in Quincy, especially as city leaders look to launch specific programs to bring new residents to the city.
"I believe Quincy is on the cusp of something extremely monumental," Brock said. "We are going to be inviting people here that we have never invited before, and those people are not going to be people who look like us, but part of inclusion is bringing great skills and talent to the table and knowing how to leverage those. If we want more people at the table, more faces at the table, then we have to be ready for inclusion here in Quincy."
She also focused on the role that churches in Quincy can play in bringing people together.
"When we live in a community where churches are only open on Sunday and Wednesday and closed every other day of the week, then there is a time to speak up," Brock said. "The church today is expecting the community centers to do what God has given the mantle to do."
Brock also challenged those in the audience to "seek, pray, fast, and to do what God has called us to do."
Annice Mallory, who is the local NAACP branch president, said she found Brock's message inspiring.
"There is lots of work to be done," Mallory said. "She really hit it on the head. I have lived here all of my life, so I am used to be the Caucasians always being the majority, but her coming here as an outsider has given her a different perspective. I am glad that she is here speaking her mind, and hopefully it will get us, people of color, more involved in organizations and the community. I think it took someone like her to bring this to light."
Mallory said the theme for this year's celebration was "MLK in Me," and which organizers purposefully chose to highlight how the task of bringing about true racial equality belongs to every person.
"In a sense Quincy has come a long way, and I don't want to blame (the lack of equality) on the Caucasians, because I think we all have a part in the world we live in," Mallory said. "I think we are all trying to be together in unity, but there is clearly more to do. We have to continue the work of Martin Luther King, Jr."