(pictured above: Willie Gary addresses the crowd.)
The more than 1,400 attendees at Monday morning’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast were prodded to adopt the late civil rights leader’s warrior stance – the one he used to face vociferous bigots and change the hearts and minds of a nation without throwing a single punch or brandishing a weapon.
“We should be in the business of accepting the challenge to bring about change,” stated keynote speaker Willie Gary, the attorney whose multi-million dollar settlements have garnered him wide acclaim and great wealth.
Gary issued that call after reminding the crowd that the playing field King fought to balance is still out of kilter, despite Dr. King having “signed up to die” to make it level for the sons and daughters of former slaves.
During her time behind the microphone, State Sen. Earline Parmon detailed the new battlegrounds and implored registered voters, especially, to take action.
“All is not well in North Carolina,” Parmon said to thunderous applause.
The applause was even more resounding after Parmon made it clear that she was representing the Legislative Black Caucus and her fellow Forsyth County Democrats at the breakfast and not Gov. Pat McCrory, whom she blames for leading a Republican Party that succeeded last year in diminishing voting rights for minorities.
Parmon said one of the most important forms of social action takes place in the voting booth. Reminding attendees that 2014 is an election year that could change the balance of power in Raleigh, Parmon asked attendees to use their vote to exorcise their frustrations and express their displeasure.
The Chronicle has sponsored the prayer breakfast – which, this year, took place at the Benton Convention Center – for the past 15 years. A mix of prayer, reflections and spirit-lifting music, the breakfast regularly draws a cross-section of residents – a fact pointed out by Mayor Pro Tempore Vivian Burke, who said that we are stronger when folks of all stripes work together to solve the problems that plague us.
“Our city is a much better place because we have citizens who are concerned,” she said.
This year’s breakfast also honored Nelson Mandela, the paragon of freedom and former South African president who passed away Dec. 5. During her greeting, Cheryl Locke, vice president and chief human resources officer at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center (the breakfast’s signature sponsor), said there were many freedom fighters before and after King and Mandela who did their parts too but with little fanfare. Many of them are in our own families, said Locke, before urging the audience to listen and absorb the stories of their parents, aunts and uncles before it is too late.
“They have something to (share)”, she said.
Other guests included Dr. Maya Angelou, who appeared via a videotaped message that touted her personal relationships with both King and Mandela; and Tramaine Hawkins, the Grammy-winning gospel legend. Hawkins brought the crowd to its feet several times as she roared through several of her classic hits, including “Changed” and “I Never Lost My Praise.”
Gary had the crowd amenin’ like a Baptist preacher. One of 11 children of a sharecropping Georgia family, Gary often uses his rags-to-riches story to inspire, motivate and remind both Believers and non-Believers that he serves an awesome God.
“It wasn’t because I was so smart … so great, it was because of His grace,” Gary, explaining his success, said.
A graduate of Shaw University – where he is a longtime trustee – and N.C. Central School of Law, Gary said he hopes his success helps to elevate historically black colleges and universities, which, he said, too often don’t get the respect due to them.
“I have lawyers working for me (at the four Florida offices that make up Gary, Williams, Lewis & Watson PL) who graduated from Harvard, Yale and Princeton, and I sign their paychecks every two weeks,” he said gleefully to drive home his contention that HBCUs are just as good – if not better – than schools with historically white faculties and student bodies.
Gary says he stays grounded – even when traveling the world on his private 737 (aptly named Wings of Justice II) – because he has always believed in the philosophy of making money, not letting money make him.
“Be careful how you treat people,” he said. “Don’t ever look down on anybody, unless you are picking them up.”