Civil rights icon Andrew Jackson Young Jr. spoke on Monday at an event in Vancouver in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Young was originally scheduled to visit Vancouver for the holiday, but the 89-year-old decided to deliver a live virtual message from his home in Georgia due to the ongoing nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases.
The event was the 12th annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast held by iUrban Teen, a nationally recognized, Vancouver-based nonprofit focused on bringing career education to underrepresented teens. The theme of this year’s event was “Continuing Dr. King’s Legacy.”
Young is a former congressman, United Nations diplomat and presidential adviser. He was elected mayor of Atlanta in 1981 and reelected in 1985. Throughout his career, he has been a staunch activist and civil rights leader. Today, he heads the Andrew J. Young Foundation, which aims to develop and support a new generation of visionary leaders.
In the 1960s, Young was a friend and colleague of King. They worked together closely in 1961 in Georgia, where together they taught nonviolent organizing strategies at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s “citizenship schools.”
In his opening remarks Monday, Young said he had been looking forward to his visit to Vancouver. He was watching the event virtually, however, and he said he was happy to see the community coming together to honor King’s legacy.
Then, he spoke about the importance of voting rights.
“Our democracy right now is in great tension,” he said. “Even before Dr. King’s assassination, we weren’t in this much danger. And so we need your prayers. We need your work. We need your votes. And we need to realize that democracy is not just for Democrats, but Republicans need democracy, too. And the rich and the poor. We have thrived and we have grown the kind of great nation that we are essentially because everybody has a voice. Everybody has a vote. And we can’t lose that. That is the American way to achieve genesis for all of God’s children.”
Young isn’t the first civil rights icon to speak at the annual breakfast.
iUrban Teen founder and executive director Deena Pierott said that she started the event 12 years ago because Vancouver didn’t have an annual celebration of King’s legacy. She dreamed of having civil rights leaders visit Vancouver to speak at the event, a dream that was soon realized when the late Congressman John Lewis made the trip in 2014. The late Rev. C.T. Vivian followed soon after in 2017.
“What an honor it was to have them here, to be in their presence,” Pierott said in her opening remarks Monday. “Today, we have another legend, even though he’s not here with us physically, but he’s here listening to us right now: the amazing Ambassador Andrew Young. Today, we are not only going to continue the legacy of Dr. King, but we’re also going to continue to live your legacy as well.”
Most proceeds from the event go toward iUrban Teen’s scholarship fund. Since the scholarship fund’s inception in 2016, 20 scholarships totaling $31,000 have gone out to local high school graduates. Some proceeds also went toward iUrban Teen’s new Bridge the Gap program, which helps high school graduates from low-income households with college incidentals such as laptops, transportation, food and books. Proceeds will also fund a donation for the NAACP Vancouver branch.
“Not only does this breakfast honor the work of Dr. King, but it also follows his passion for education,” Pierott said.
Other speakers Monday included Gov. Jay Inslee, Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle, Washington State Office of Equity Director Dr. Karen Johnson and more. There was a musical performance, an invocation and benediction from local pastors and a spoken-word performance.
Many tables were vacant due to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, which prompted some organizations to attend the event virtually. Nonetheless, the energy at the event was lively and impassioned. At one point, everyone stood and sang a masked rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” At another, participants listened solemnly as King’s last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” played over the speakers.
Pastor Matthew Hennessee of Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church of Portland spoke about the connection between his church and King.
“Vancouver Avenue is an historic church,” he said. “It is the only church in all of Oregon that Dr. King came and spoke. And the very pulpit that I preach from every Sunday is the pulpit he stood in, in November of 1961, 60 years ago. I do think it’s a tragedy that in 2022 we are still dealing with the very issues that Dr. King dealt with as well.”
He encouraged the audience to listen to King’s speeches because “they are as relevant today as they were 50 or 60 years ago.”
While King’s legacy was the theme of the event, speakers also discussed the ongoing work of iUrban Teen. The Vancouver-based organization recently opened its first “learning hub,” a brick-and-mortar operation in downtown Vancouver. The organization now offers programs in Oregon, California and Texas and, according to Pierott, programs will soon be offered in London, Harlem and Miami.
One iUrban Teen alumni, Leland James, a senior at the University of Washington, talked about how the organization helped him throughout high school and into college.
“I can’t thank iUrban Teen enough for supporting my collegiate journey, and I appreciate the organization’s backing and all that they do to create access for BIPOC students and communities,” he said. “It’s amazing how the power of education brings a community together.”