CHAMPAIGN — Speakers at Day On for Service program Monday remembered the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the history of civil rights locally.
But they also emphasized to high school students attending that they can make a difference in their own community today.
Community activist and Central graduate Terry Townsend told students about his experiences at Central High School after King was murdered, and explained how King used high school students to make a change in this country.
He talked about how racism still happens now though it's not often discussed, and how students can make changes when they see injustice.
"Don't be afraid," he told students. "Just do it. The fear will leave."
He talked about helping defuse the fear of violence and riots in the days after King was murdered, and how the whole school, including teachers, walked to the McKinley Foundation for a community meeting.
Champaign native Bernice Harrington told students about how she was among the first African-American students to attend Centennial High School, and how in order to get there, she and her classmates had to walk from the north end of town to Central, to catch a bus to Centennial. They walked through storms and other bad weather, watching out for falling power lines and tree limbs.
At school, no one really talked about racism, but Harrington said, "You understood your place. People didn't really talk about it."
And while she was able to participate in choir and other activities, she couldn't attend after-school extracurricular activities, because she had to catch the bus back to Central and then walk home. Parents worked and couldn't just come pick students up, she said.
The experience exposed her to many different people, something she recommended to students attending the Day On for Service program.
"Take a little time to learn something about someone different from you," Harrington advised them. "You'll gain an understanding of what's really going around you. Don't be afraid to ... ask the hard questions."
She also told them to approach problems they'd like to fix by first researching and then finding solutions to recommend.
"You all have a gift and a talent," she said. "Don't let anyone tell you you can't be successful at it."
Jessica Simpson, a graduate of Central, Parkland and Eastern Illinois University, talked about her experiences as SNAP coordinator for the Eastern Illinois Foodbank, and also encouraged students to volunteer and advocate for their communities.
"There are so many people that are struggling right now," she said.
She encouraged it not only for the good of the community, but for personal excellence.
"If you stand up for what's right," she said, "that's led me to where I am today."
She also thanked Harrington and Townsend for their work in the community during the civil rights movement and since.
"We all need to strengthen our own community," she said.
Volunteer activity postponed
While students and community members spent Monday afternoon volunteering in memory of Martin Luther King Jr., one planned activity was postponed in order to gather more volunteers and supplies.
Volunteers will create care packages for active-duty military personnel and veterans from 1 to 4 p.m. Jan. 28, at the Illini Union.
For more information about volunteering for this cause, visit http://union.illinois.edu/ovp.