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Justice tells MLK event: 'Celebrate our differences'

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel in Harrison Township on Monday.

Harrison Township — Michigan's first blind Supreme Court justice called Monday on Metro Detroiters to embrace diversity and struggle as he addressed a breakfast honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

"Let us celebrate our differences, let us celebrate our difficulties, let us celebrate our purpose," Richard Bernstein said during his keynote speech at the Macomb County Ministerial Alliance's Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Fellowship Breakfast.

In his remarks at the Mac Ray Harbor, Bernstein acknowledged King's background as a Baptist minister and how he drew upon his faith to fuel his crusade for equal rights for African-Americans.

The new supreme court justice also shared his own experiences with adversity, including competing in an Ironman triathlon in 2008 and being mowed down by a bicyclist in New York's Central Park in 2012.

He talked about the fear he felt swimming in frigid water during the triathlon, not knowing where he was going, getting kicked in the face by other swimmers and being pulled under the water by the rope tying him to his guide. He also recounted his painful recovery after he was hit by the bicyclist.

"That is the gift of God," Bernstein said. "He gives us, through the pain and struggle, the opportunity to connect with him."

The breakfast was one of dozens of events across Metro Detroit that honored the slain civil rights leader's life, legacy and efforts to continue his work.

At the Bel Air 10 Theater in Detroit, a free "Selma" screening attracted about 300 viewers and was followed by a panel discussion.

"Selma," released Jan. 9, portrays King's leadership of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which influenced the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson.

"It was very good; it taught me about the movement and what people went through," said Najsha Robinson, 16, a student attending the screening with her mother.

Brianna Davis and her mother Trannie Glasscox singing Lift Every Voice in Harrison Township on Monday.

"Made me have a new outlook ... people died for the right to vote," said Najsha's mother, Tameka Stewart, 36. "I'll be voting in the next elections now."

Shawn Dove, manager of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, one of the sponsoring organizations of the free viewing and moderator of the panel discussion, said arts and culture are a key tool for creating social change.

"The reality is movements like this happened across the country. We have to create vehicles for community change," Dove said. "This event is about the opportunity to build community."

At the earlier Mac Ray Harbor event, hundreds joined state, county, municipal and community leaders for the 10th annual fellowship breakfast.

Brady Jones, 69, of Macomb Township was among them.

"(Bernstein) was sensational," he said. "He was top-notch. It was the first time I've heard the judge speak and he was really inspiring."

Rosalyn Fernandis, 55, of Detroit agreed.

"He could have been a minister," she said. "He was so uplifting. I feel like I have to celebrate life once I leave here."

Fernandis brought her grandson, Amari Kirksey, 13, of Southfield, to the event with her.

"I want him to know about his roots," she said. "With everything that's been happening, I felt it was important for him to come here and see this."

Formed in 1999, the Macomb County Ministerial Alliance is a group of African-American ministers that advocates social and economic justice for minorities and special needs groups as well as serves the poor, the homeless, seniors and children in Macomb County.

Among other MLK Day events Monday:

■A "Day of Outreach" at Henry Ford College, where students, faculty and staff volunteered to help local agencies with renovations and educational and social projects.

■The City of Warren displayed artifacts from the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit at City Hall.

■At Oakland University in Rochester, the campus honored King and granting scholarships to five students who have "demonstrated community involvement and efforts to improve diversity," said Brian Bierley, a university spokesman.

Aukury Cowart, Chanel Daniels, Zienab Fahs, Joseph Kirma and Taylor Moore are receiving one-time $5,000 scholarships, according to the school's website. Oakland University also gathered faculty and staff for a daylong workshop to study ways to better serve students.

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