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Bemidji Freedom Walk: Group gathers at BSU to remember Martin Luther King Jr.

About 40 Bemidji residents participated in the Bemidji Freedom Walk Thursday evening from the Tourist Information Center to Bemidji State University to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. The walk was followed by a program in Beaux Arts Ballroom with guest speaker Annie B. Henry. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

The pounding of the Kingbird Singers' drums pulsated throughout the Beaux Arts Ballroom Thursday evening as the drummers sang the "Honor Song," a symbolic gesture reflecting Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy.

The 12th annual Martin Luther King Freedom Walk was held Thursday at Bemidji State University in honor of King and Black History Month, which is February.

The event began with a group of community members and students who walked from the Paul and Babe statues to BSU, waving flags of different colors and symbols. A program followed with retired BSU professor and keynote speaker Annie B. Henry leading the audience in the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

Bemidji Middle School students Amayah Littlewolf and Kylie St. Peter read a piece of King's "I Have a Dream" speech before Henry gave her presentation.

Henry, a native of Jacksonville, Fla., was also the keynote speaker for the Bemidji Freedom Walk in 2006. Henry established the African American Annie B. Henry Scholarship, which is available to all education majors. She is currently in the process of writing her personal memoir.

"When I was asked to be the keynote speaker from one of my former students, I was humbled. I was honored," she said.

Henry told the audience she personally met King in 1968 in Atlanta, Ga., and said their meeting was a complete surprise to her.

"Dr. King told me things that I have lived to see come true," Henry said. "He talked about the struggle we would have in this country simply because of the color of my skin. He said 'You will go on and you will get your Ph.D.' Little did I know I would have a master's and I would have a Ph.D."

Henry said King also told her there would be times in her life when she would wonder, "Why me?"

"He said, 'There will be a bird on your shoulder saying, 'If not you, then who?'" Henry said. "I take that message to shape my life."

Henry received a standing ovation from the crowd for her speech.

Listening to Henry's speech was John Gonzalez, an assistant professor of psychology at BSU and a third-year participating in the Freedom Walk event. He said he participates because he said it is important to remember King.

"Martin Luther King Jr. inspired so many people," Gonzalez said. "It's so important to remember how he transformed our society and our culture."

Gonzalez said society has come far in providing equal rights to all people, but said "we still have a long way to go."

"People think we are in a post-racial society, but we still have a lot of work to do with racism," he said. "People look to (President) Barack Obama and they say 'We have a black person as a president.' This is one small step in the process, and it's an important step, but yet when you look around in society, you still see these disparities that exist between racial groups. When we close that gap, then we can say we are in a post-racial society."

Chinwuba Okafor, the master of ceremonies at the Bemidji Freedom Walk event, said the walk offers people an opportunity get together, meet new people and talk about important issues.

"The Freedom Walk for me is about bigger concepts," he said. "Often we get lost in the day to day of living life, so having walks like this, I think, brings issues to the forefront again. It's building the conversation to a positive place with no negative connotation behind it."

When asked what diversity means, BSU student Lisa Broderins she said it is about people accepting different cultures.

"Diversity means being your own self," she said. "People should go and come as they will."

"It's important to remember what (King) did," Gonzalez added. "He did change our society in a lot of good ways. We can't forget that."