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MLK Legacy Awards in Detroit honors leaders for lifetime of work in civil rights

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — They were all the same age, all in Congress, all fighting for civil rights.

And on Sunday, the "three Johns": the late U.S. Reps. John Conyers Jr. and John Dingell Jr., and U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia were honored anew for their contributions in the fight for equality.

"He was the first member of Congress to introduce legislation on the civil rights movement in 1955," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, who accepted a MLK Legacy Award on behalf of her late husband Sunday. "... They were all the same age. They weren't afraid to stand up for what needed to be said."

The honors didn't go only to lawmakers Dingell and Lewis. Five others were selected for the 2020 MLK Legacy Awards, including Barbara Busby, co-founder of the historic Detroit Repertory Theatre; Lillie Skinner, outreach director of Core City Neighborhood focused on helping the homeless; Ty Mopkins, international fashion designer and community activist; Caledonia "Peaches" Anderson, retired UAW Local 600 representative and fighter for labor and women's rights; and Luther Keith, former Detroit News editor, educator and founder of service group Arise Detroit!

The awards honored those who have carried on King's work. This year's event, the 11th annual, was called "The Dream & the Dean, the Legacy Lives!," the "dean" a reference to Conyers' position as the longest continuously serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives, succeeding Dingell. 

Conyers spent 53 years in the House and became the first black chairman of the House Oversight and Judiciary committees. Dingell was the longest serving congressman in U.S. history at 59 years.

The late U.S. Rep. John Conyers was the most senior member of Congress following Rep. John Dingell's retirement. He was honored Sunday for his civil rights record.

"We are fortunate enough to celebrate Dr. King's legacy today, in part, because of the late John Conyers' lifetime of hard work, fighting for justice and equal opportunity," Sen. Gary Peters said in a video introduction. "Congressman Conyers also knew that it is critical that he and Dr. King's message of unity and compassion carry on. Now, more than ever, we must continue to strive to do our part to help fulfill Dr. King's dream of bringing people together in the struggle for justice."

King would have been 91 years old last week and while change has been made, it's critical to keep his memory alive, said Deborah Jenkins, principal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School where the ceremony was held.

"We must carry on our oral history and help children know that they were not born by accident," she said to the crowd of 100. "When people ask who were our leaders after Dr. King, it's those that are here tonight."

Eleventh Annual MLK Legacy Awards recipient Caledonia "Peaches" Anderson of UAW Local 600 Retirees Chapter President during the event.

Michael Joseph, co-chair of the awards, said, "We're not necessarily looking for the big name, we're looking for the big thing, and this lady does that by feeding homeless people, clothing them, finding homes for them for over 20 years," as he introduced Skinner.

Luther Keith, founder of ARISE Detroit

"For the past 15 years, we have never received a penny from (the) government or state," said Skinner, who relies on donations, volunteers, and partnerships with churches. "We do this by walking by faith and not by sight."

While accepting her award, Busby said the theater has been in business since 1957, the same year that King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. 

Eleventh Annual MLK Legacy Awards recipient Barbara Bushy speaks during the event.

"Isn't that amazing. That here, in Detroit, a little theater with a bunch of people who thought civil rights were supposed to happen, decided, yup, we'll make it happen in the center of Detroit on a street called Woodrow Wilson, which is geographically center, and we're still there."

MLK Legacy Award recipient Lillie Bell Skinner of Core City Neighborhoods talks during the event.

Other attendees included Democratic U.S. Reps. Brenda Lawrence, Rashida Tlaib, who walked on stage with Dingell to accept the award for Dingell's husband.

Dingell said receiving the award was special for commemorating the "three Johns," all of whom worked together on civil rights for more than 50 years.

"In 1964, when the Civil Rights Act passed, John Dingell's was the most-watched race in the country. There were two men of Polish descent, both had fathers that had been members of Congress; one voted for the Rights Act and one voted against. The Wall Street Journal gave him 14-1 odds. He won, you saw that, and he would say to the day he died that the most important vote he cast was (for) the Civil Rights Act."

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, center, talks Sunday about her late husband, Rep. John Dingell, the late Rep. John Conyers and Rep. John Lewis with Reps. Brenda Lawrence, left, and Rashida Tlaib looking on during the eleventh annual MLK Legacy Awards in Detroit

Previous recipients of legacy awards include Aretha Franklin, Rev. Jesse Jackson and co-founder of Focus: Hope Eleanor Josaitis.

The keynote speech was given by Pastor Solomon Kinloch Jr. of Triumph Church who said: "I know that on April 4,1968, the assassin's bullet took out Dr. King, but the reality is, although it killed the dreamer, it should not have killed the dream."

Events continue Monday at the school, which will showcase a historical living museum of interactive tours covering America's civil rights movement. Tours begin at 8:45 a.m., with the Legacy March at 11 a.m. in front of the school. 

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_