Several people were honored during an award ceremony and service held at Bibleway Baptist Church in West Philadelphia.
The Martin Luther King Jr. awards were given to those whose lives demonstrated the civil rights activist’s ministry of reconciliation and service to humanity.
“We normally have a worship service on the national holiday to commemorate his birth and his legacy,” said Rev. Damone Jones Sr., pastor at Bibleway. “One of the reasons that we continue to do so is that a lot of our children seem to be getting more and more disconnected with the Civil Rights Movement.”
Jones said as a result of this disconnection, many of today’s youth fail to fully understand the rights and freedoms gained as a result of the movement.
“At the end of the worship service we give out what we call the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Awards that are given from the church,” Jones said.
These awards are given to community leaders, elected officials and others who go beyond the ordinary to serve others.
Dorothy Johnson-Speight, founder of the group Mothers In Charge, was one of those selected for an award.
Johnson-Speight, who started the organization after the murder of her son, now has chapters throughout the United States and visits prisons and other places to help those who committed crimes make better decisions and those who are victims of crimes to find strength and support through their grief.
Johnson-Speight formed Mothers In Charge after the murder of her son, Khaaliq Johnson, who was killed in a dispute over a parking spot in December 2001. Johnson was 24 at the time of his death.
“Initially I didn’t think I was going to survive — I didn’t really think about living,” said Johnson-Speight about the days following her son’s death. The death of her son followed the death of her daughter nearly 15 years before.
“I was about ready to give up, and I don’t know when it really came to me but I decided that I would not allow the person who killed Khaaliq to take my life as well,” Johnson-Speight said. “I needed to find something to make sure that his life was not in vain.”
Mothers In Charge was the means by which she channeled the anger and grief she felt into something constructive and beneficial for others who suffered the same tragedy.
“We are the organization that wants to be out of business,” said Johnson-Speight about the group whose membership consists of mothers who have lost children to violence.
It is this humane response to the inhumane murder of her son, that earned her the MLK award at Bibleway.
“It’s a very important award,” said Ulysses “Butch” Slaughter, another MLK awardee. “Martin Luther King said that there is a need for the radical redistribution of economic and political power, and I believe that today there is a radical need for the redistribution of human spirit.”
Slaughter describes this redistribution of the human spirit as a refocusing of human purpose, redirecting ourselves away from overwhelming materialism and technology which he believes separate people.
Slaughter, who witnessed the murder of his mother by his father as a child, said he decided to reconcile with his father after being estranged from one another for 33 years.
“That reconciliation with my father created tremendous opportunities for me to help people,” said Straughter, whose organization The Odyssey project, works with fathers.
“I have done a lot of very good things, but reconciling with my father injected my work with a different kind of spirit.”
This work led Straughter to meet another recipient of Monday’s MLK Award, Shakyl Smith, also a victim who forgave his perpetrator.
As a teenager, Smith, a promising athlete, had his dreams shattered when he was shot and paralyzed, ending his dreams of becoming a star basketball player.
Slaughter reached out to Smith and convinced him to forgive the person who shot him. While the shooter is unknown, the two have launched a campaign to find him or her but they don’t want an arrest, simply reconciliation. For this selfless act of forgiveness, Smith also received the MLK Community Service Award at Bibleway.
Harold Trulear, Ph.D., also an MLK awardee for his work with prisoners, said the idea of the MLK event was to make the King holiday, not just an historic part of Black history, but a living presence.
“Both the message and the awards reflected the fact that there are those of us who are trying to live out his commitment to justice in the current world,” Trulear said.