URBANA — Even during President Barack Obama's first term, post-racial America is still a dream, but people of different backgrounds can continue to move toward the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s goals if they "exhaust" themselves.
That was the message that keynote speaker Christopher Benson, a University of Illinois professor in journalism and African-American studies, told the audience on Sunday during a commemorative ceremony at the Krannert Center for Performing Arts on the civil rights leader's birthday.
Benson was in the presence of other community leaders, UI officials, a moving community choir and 12 outstanding students from Champaign-Urbana high schools, selected as this year's winners of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. scholarships.
Benson commended the students, and said they "are making a difference in making difference a thing of value."
The event and presentation of the King scholarships has become a cornerstone of the area's annual commemoration of the King holiday. This year's show had audience members dancing to rousing performances from a choir based at Salem Baptist Church, praying for "renewed vigor to continue the fight for justice and equal opportunity," and taking a collective pledge to start "right now."
The pledge dovetailed with Benson's advice to go to bed every night exhausted from the day's work. Civil rights leaders like King and Mamie Till Mobley seemed to do so, Benson said, and continued working for social justice up to the days they died.
Wynita Mock, a 2006 King scholar and Centennial High School graduate, said the money helped her get through her studies at Tennessee State University. Now she is planning on graduate school to get her master's degree in social work.
The money helps students like her overcome financial and other obstacles to furthering their education, she said.
"Because of all these reasons, they use them as barriers and excuses to not move forward in life," Mock said.
UI Chancellor Phyllis Wise said "the dream" may seem overwhelming, but a community cannot stop working. She said this year's theme for the event was an appropriate goal.
"I have to say, 'promoting justice through the dream,' — and, I'll add, through action — is critically important for both of our organizations, the university and the community," she said.
Wise said when she met with community and church leaders from Champaign-Urbana, it was "a learning moment."
She pledged on Tuesday to ensure diversity in faculty and student recruitment at the UI. That was, for her, a takeaway from that meeting with community leaders.
She also said the UI is "redoubling" its efforts to partner with local school districts to provide more opportunities for minority students.
Those are just a few of the issues that will receive attention in the coming years, she added.
"When we let up, injustice gains ground," she said.