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Norwich - The 29th annual Martin Luther King birthday luncheon Friday celebrated the successes of a new generation of leaders, represented by two honorees who received standing ovations from the more than 100 attendees at the Norwich Free Academy cafeteria.
"Our future looks bright," said emcee Tarishia Martin, referring to keynote speaker and 2013 Martin Luther King Scholarship winner Motyat "Tia" Olatunmbi and youth service award recipient Lillian Cook, 19. Olatunmbi is a senior at NFA, and Cook graduated in 2012.
Cook, recipient of the Robertsine Duncan Memorial youth service award, led off Friday's program with a dance performance to the Marvin Gaye song "What's Going On?"
Last June, at age 18, Cook opened her own dance company, The Lion's Den Dance Co. in New London. The company has 16 dancers who already have won competitions. The group sent a video montage of past performances, a trophy presentation and portraits of themselves as a way to congratulate Cook.
Cook thanked her parents, NFA teachers and past dance coaches who both encouraged her and "told me to shut up." She said she knew she was a leader from early childhood when she was the one to decide what games her family or friends would play. She challenged teachers on whether this or that classroom rule was necessary.
Keynote speaker Olatunmbi took on the event's theme, "Forgive, Never Forget" with an emotional speech revealing her own struggles.
Nov. 26, 2009, was Thanksgiving, and Olatunmbi was happy to receive a phone call from her father in Chicago. She wished him "Happy Thanksgiving."
Instead of returning the greeting, he told her that her brother, Ibrahim Olatunmbi, 21, had just died of complications from his medications.
After thinking of all the good times going to movies and to McDonald's and Burger King, Olatunmbi went from the pain of grief that she refused to express to anger at herself "for being such a terrible sister." Her anger hurt her other relationships, and that made her even angrier, she said.
"It took three years to finally forgive myself for losing Ibrahim," she said. "I realized that the effect of all that anger could have ruined my life. Not only that, but life is too short to have to carry that anger with you."
Olatunmbi turned from her personal story to those of famous figures who faced pain, persecution and anger - King and recently deceased South African President Nelson Mandela.
King was jailed numerous times for his peaceful insistence on equality for African Americans. During his 27 years in prison, Mandela resolved to befriend his prison guards and even went to church with them, Olatunmbi said.
Olatunmbi said her own generation of Americans still struggles with the promise of equality and the long history of discrimination. She said some who excel in school are ridiculed for "acting white," while those who embrace "being ghetto" are said to be "acting black."
Recalling King's and Mandela's powerful messages of forgiveness, peace and equality, Olatunmbi urged her peers to put aside anger and excuses from past discrimination and ill treatment.
"We struggled to gain the strength to fight, and now must struggle to find the strength to forgive," Olatunmbi said. "It is our calling. It is our responsibility, not as blacks and whites, but as Americans."
Monday: Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. March and commemoration service.
The march will start at City Hall at 1:45 p.m. to Evans Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, 2 McKinley Ave. for a commemorating service.
Keynote Speaker: The Rev. S. Yvonne Hall, associate minister, Shiloh Baptist Church of New London, author of the book "The Armor of God" and former president of the Women's Auxiliary to the Connecticut State Missionary Baptist Convention.