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New London - Addressing more than 100 people at St. James Episcopal Church Sunday afternoon, Dr. James E. Mitchell declared that the gathering would not only celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but respond to what King once called "life's most persistent and urgent question."
"What are you doing to help others?" Mitchell, president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Trust Fund, asked, quoting King.
With that question on the minds of those in the church, Mitchell opened the 30th Annual Ecumenical Service honoring King.
The service centered on the five students from area high schools who in October were selected by the fund's Board of Trustees to receive $20,000 scholarships.
In his welcoming address, the Rev. Michel Belt of St. James Church noted the ties Dr. King had to Connecticut, having spent two summers working on farms in Simsbury to earn money to continue his own education.
One scholarship recipient, Norwich Free Academy senior Motyat "Tia" Olatunmbi, reflected on how King's words remain relevant to her generation, even though they were born decades after his assassination.
"Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through a continuous struggle," Olatunmbi began, quoting King. "When I talk to some adults about the social injustices of today, they tell me that things are a lot better than they used to be or that change comes with time."
But, she said, racial inequity "has changed its face, but it is still there."
"My generation may not have to bear the physical scars of police dogs or fire hoses, but we do bear psychological ones," Olatunmbi said. "Every day, we are bombarded by the media telling us what we can and cannot be."
Until African-Americans have the same opportunities as whites, until gays and lesbians are treated equally and until women receive fair pay, the struggle for equality in America is not over in America, she said.
"Things are better? No, things have changed," Olatunmbi said. "Dr. King's quote gave me the answers to all my uncertainties. It gave me the affirmation that I must continue his spiritual fight. We can't just sit around and wait for change to happen, we must actively pursue it."
In addition to recognition of the five scholarship recipients and recollections of King's urgings for a unified society, the ceremony also included musical selections from the chamber choirs from NFA and Fitch High School.
In her keynote address, LaShanda Williams, a 1994 recipient of the King scholarship and an alumna of New London High School, said her education gave her "a seat at the table" in her professional life.
"My being selected as a Dr. King scholar opened doors to a brighter future to me," she said. "This was a tremendous blessing to me because I realized that my dream of higher education had become a reality and I had a chance for success."
Williams, who works as a communications manager for General Electric, attended Amherst College with the aid of the King scholarship before advancing her education at Syracuse University.
Following King's death in 1968, former teacher and New London mayor Eunice McLean Waller and her husband, William DeHomer Waller, donated $100 to establish the scholarship to award a student who best represented King's ideals. The scholarship evolved and has expanded ever since. So far, 127 students from southeastern Connecticut have been awarded scholarships through the fund.
"How thankful we are that those who have come before us did not give up the fight, that they did not waiver in their hope for a better tomorrow," Williams said. "It was the ability to inspire such hope and peace that lives on as, perhaps, the greatest part of Dr. King's legacy."