ELYRIA — The “I Have a Dream” speech continues to inspire.
Elyria minister Mark Taylor of Second Baptist Church, will tell you he first learned the speech when he was 16. He was struggling in high school, not the strongest reader and being tutored at Asbury United Methodist Church.
He was called by the church pastor to play Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a play in 1985 and had to learn the iconic speech for the role.
“The first time I recited the speech, I was so nervous, but I also remember feeling proud that despite how I was doing at Elyria High, they believed I could do it,” Taylor said.
The following year, Taylor was asked to recite the speech again at the inaugural Elyria Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service program at Elyria High School. As Taylor walked to the school, he said signs in nearby front yards blasted the program and used the highly volatile n-word to drive home the point.
“I couldn’t believe that so many years after King told everyone about his dream, I was still seeing signs in my hometown that said, ‘Go back to where you came from, N-word,’ ” Taylor said. “It really drove home for me every word of King’s speech and is one of the reasons why I keep reciting it when I am called upon.”
Monday, 28 years after that first program, Taylor once again delivered the speech that has since been heard around the world during this year’s King celebration. And, true to form, as Taylor moved through the speech, the crowd of more than 400 people responded with cheers and applause.
“I put my heart into it every time I do it because I want to remind people of how far we have come,” he said.
This year’s program was nothing like the first Taylor performed. The diverse crowd began the day with a commemorative march from Ely Square to Elyria High School — something organizer LaTaunya Conley said has taken place each year regardless of the weather.
The event ended with everyone joining hands and singing “We Shall Overcome.”
It’s hard to encompass everything King stood for in a 90-minute program. His birthday and the holiday celebrating his legacy are often the kickoff to Black History Month in February. The man known as the Father of the Civil Rights Movement said so much before, after and during that one speech delivered in 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington.
He stood for racial equality but also was outspoken about education and income.
Local and state leaders who spoke Monday did not want those in attendance to forget those struggles.
“Yes, there are still racial inequalities that we must grapple with, but we still have a long way to go in other areas,” said Elyria Mayor Holly Brinda. “Income inequality is now the biggest barrier in the community.”
Brinda encouraged everyone to bridge gaps by mentoring, tutoring and offering a hand up to those in need.
“No one gets there alone,” she said.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland, a surprise guest who congratulated friend John Bender as this year’s recipient of the Humanitarian Award, said King would often talk about injustices in health care. It was the perfect segue to plug the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare. The push to get people insured has caused much controversy because of its policies in addition to the dismal rollout of the health insurance exchange website.
Brown said he wants to hear from those who have found success with the program.
“Trust me, this is going to matter,” he said. “We are going to make it work. People forget Medicare when it was passed in 1965 was controversial. Change often is seen first as controversial.”
In addition to Bender, a former Democratic state representative, several others were recognized. Bobby Taylor of the Boys & Girls Club of Elyria received the Community Building Award; Ladies on the Move in the Right Direction was the recipient of the Social and Cultural Awareness Award; and Tom Jama, principal of Elyria High School, received the Educational Excellence Award. Lorain Metropolitan Housing Authority received the Economic Opportunity Award, and the Youth Leadership Award was given to Maya Shed.