Martin Luther King Salute to Greatness Awards inspire in Atlanta

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ATLANTA – Around 2,000 guests turned out to support this year’s Salute to Greatness Awards to honor trailblazers who have demonstrated a commitment to the principles and philosophy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The annual event, one of the largest awards dinners held in Atlanta, is the King Center‘s primary fundraising initiative.

Proceeds go to the upkeep of the 23-acre memorial site and the various projects and community initiatives undertaken by the center to carry on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Saturday’s awards kicked off with a VIP reception, where honorees, dignitaries, sponsors, partners and high-profile figures all rubbed shoulders. It was followed by a scrumptious three-course dinner in the Hyatt Regency Hotel Centennial Ballroom, where the awards were presented.

Atlanta TV icon Monica Pearson and former radio presenter-turned-entrepreneur Frank Ski hosted the event. Ski said everyone plays a part to “teach the next generation” the message of “non-violence.”

Bernice King, the youngest daughter of the slain civil rights leader and CEO of The King Center, delivered the welcome remarks. She said “as we celebrate the monumental achievements of King” and his foot soldiers, it’s also a time to reflect on the current state of the country. “America is in urgent need of healing and reconciliation.”

She also made reference to this year’s holiday having added meaning and resonance because Obama was taking the oath of office with his hands on the Bibles of Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lincoln.

The 2006 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Professor Muhammad Yunis, was presented with a Salute to Greatness award for outstanding work helping the poor in his native Bangladesh. “Poverty is the denial of all human rights,” he said. The economist continued that he dreams of a world “where poverty is in the museum” and “there is no unemployment.”

Yunus, who studied at Vanderbilt University on a scholarship in the 1960s, “when the civil rights movement was at its height,” said he “never thought this man [King] would inspire him in so many ways.”

Other honorees included insurance company Aflac for its commitment to diversity and philanthropic work. “We were proud to present the Salute to Greatness Award to Aflac, Inc. Chairman and CEO Daniel Amos, who has done an outstanding job of keeping Aflac in the forefront of corporate social responsibility,” said King.

This year also saw the debut of the ANGEL award for a young activist and a youth-focused program. Alec Loorz, 18, founder of Kids vs. Global Warming, was honored for being one of the leading young voices in the U.S. on climate change.

Jay Roberson, a Birmingham, Alabama, city councilman, was also recognized for his “100 Days of Nonviolence” campaign in the metro area.  The campaign concluded on MLK Day 2011 without one person under 18 dying as a result of violence. The program has been repeated annually.

Other noticeable speakers who took to the stage were King’s only living sibling, Dr. Christine King Farris;  MLK’s close aide, Ambassador Andrew Young; and Ted Turner’s daughter, Laura Turner Seydel, who gave a heartfelt tribute to Yunis.

The room buzzed with energy and elegance as R&B singer, Howard Hewett, entertained guests with a rendition of Imagine by John Lennon.

The jazz-oriented event also featured performances by Young Middle School Jazz Combo and contemporary jazz violinist Daniel Davis. Mercedes-Benz hosted the after-glow party, with a funky jazz band which got the female guests onto the dance floor even in their long gowns.

The first Salute to Greatness Award was handed out in 1983. Past notable recipients of the award include Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, media mogul Oprah Winfrey, U.S. Poet Laureate Maya Angelou, basketball legend Magic Johnson and singer Stevie Wonder.

Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter at @Kunbiti