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‘Keeper of the Dream’ event brings Freedom Award recipients and youth together

Freedom Award winners (back row) Hafsat Abiola, Gloria Steinem and John Legend share the stage with the Keeper of the Dream Award winners: Mia Elizabeth Adkins, Marissa Pittman, Brooklyn Johnson and siblings Risha and Krishnav Manga. (Photos: Tyrone P. Easley)

Summoned to Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church for the 2019 Freedom Award Student Forum on Wednesday morning, thousands of high-energy students filed into the sanctuary for the event that annually opens the National Civil Rights Museum’s Freedom Award celebration.

Five students – Mia Elizabeth Adkins, Marissa Pittman, Brooklyn Johnson and siblings Risha and Krishnav Manga, were presented the Keepers of the Dream Award for their efforts to make a difference and change lives for the better.

At times the place was – in the vernacular of the attending students – ‘lit.” Young people performed pre-event warm ups with popular rap tunes that got the crowd swaying and waving hands in the air. The cheers and screams were deafening. And that was just for starters.

The Soulsville Charter School Concert Choir, under the direction of Demetrius Robinson, delighted with a’capella, tightly harmonized singing, rooted deep in the ‘Negro Spiritual’ tradition. Roars of approval and applause rewarded the well-trained ensemble.

Among those sounding approval were the three Freedom Award winners: musician John Legend; feminist writer, lecturer, political activist and organizer, Gloria Steinem, and Nigerian human rights activist Hafsat Abiola. They received their awards during a gala affair at The Orpheum Wednesday evening. Each seemed to pour his/her heart out during the morning’s Freedom Award Student Forum.

In her greeting, National Civil Rights Museum (NCRM) President Terri Lee Freeman encouraged the young people – including the global viewers online – to “learn how we can create the change we want to see in the world.”

Hollywood heartthrob Lamman Rucker, who hosted the Wednesday evening gala for the second straight year, was met with the high-pitched screams of swooning teen girls at the forum.

“No social change ever happened without a society’s young people,” Rucker declared.

During the formal presentation of the NCRM’s Keeper of the Dream Awards, a video chronicled the award-winning work by each honoree. Here’s a snapshot of the winners:

* Mia Adkins – The sixth-grader at Herbert Carter Global Community Magnet School launched the “Change for Change” fundraising project to fight for equitable access to clean water in Central America.

* Marissa Pittman – The White Station High School senior founded “Pumps and Politics 901,” encouraging young women of color to become involved in their community through political action.

* Brooklyn Johnson – The senior at St. Mary’s Episcopal School dedicated herself to providing low-cost day camps for underserved children in Memphis.

* Risha and Krishnav Manga – Siblings at Lausanne Collegiate School, they co-founded 901 PLEDGE, an effort for kids by kids to engage and give back to local and global communities.

Gripping panel discussion

Hafsat Abiola shared her upbringing as a member of one of the wealthiest families on the African continent. She shared the tragic aftermath of his decision to run for public office in what was billed as a fair and democratic election in Nigeria.

“We did not know that the army had a different idea,” she said. “My mother was assassinated and my father was put in prison. He died in prison two years later. I lost my mother at the age of 21, and I lost my father when I was 23…,” she said.

“When I think about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I feel honored that my mother and father stood up for democracy. And because of that, today Nigeria, with more than 200 million people, is a democracy…”

Asked by a student how she continued moving forward after the death of her parents, Abioto answered, “How do black people move forward after every trial? You just keep moving.”

Gloria Steinem said patriarchy is the root of racism and sexism.

“As one of the co-founders of Ms. Magazine, I found it necessary to do so when the editors would not publish my piece saying that women were equal because they said then they would have to publish another article next to it saying women were unequal in order to be objective.”

Students laughed at the absurdity.

“I have such faith in young people. I’m so happy to be in this space. I think to divide us by age is as bad as dividing us in any other way…I’m 85 years old,” she said. “It’s good to have old people around because we have hope because we remember how bad it was. It’s good to have young people around because you see how bad it is, and you’re mad as hell.

“We need each other. We can learn from each other.”

John Legend said his focus now – as far as social justice is concerned – is mass incarceration. His organization is Free America.

“We’re the most incarcerated country in the world, and the effects of that is it’s disproportionately involved the poor, minorities and people of color. Families are separated for far too long. We see communities crippled and under-invested for far too long, and we’ve seen our nation over-invested in punishment and destruction, and controlling peoples’ bodies…,” he said.

“We want our nation to be investing in our communities and focusing on rehabilitation for people with drug abuse problems. …When I was 15, I said that I wanted to be a big star and then use my influence to change some of the wrong things I saw in the world. When I achieved my dream, it was important to stay true to my purpose and what I felt I had to do.

“Each of you has that same potential. Work hard. Get an education, and pursue your dream, despite the challenges. You can make it.”

The Soulsville Charter School Concert Choir closed with an inspired rendition of Legend’s “Glory,” the theme song from “Selma.”

The students responded with an extended standing ovation that clearly moved Legend.

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