Post and Courier: Kennedy delivers keynote speech as Charleston’s MLK Celebration resumes in person

January 13, 2023

By Rickey Ciapha Dennis Jr.
Jan 12, 2023 

After suspending in-person activities for two consecutive years because of COVID-19, South Carolina’s largest celebration honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. resumes its physical celebration this year in the Holy City.

“After the last 24 months, it’s a pleasure to see you all here,” said LaVanda Brown, executive director of the YWCA Greater Charleston, during the Jan. 12 breakfast held annually to honor the civil rights leader. “This feels like a family reunion.”

The 51st annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration welcomes people from across the state this week for a multi-day program honoring the legacy of world-renowned civil rights figure. The celebration began Jan. 8 with a worship service. Organizers hosted the MLK Breakfast Summit, formerly known as the Annual MLK Business and Professional Breakfast at the Charleston Gaillard Center.

Hundreds of community and business leaders, and elected officials attended the breakfast as businesses and city leaders emphasized the need to continue King’s fight for equality.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said the city is making important strides in the area of racial reconciliation, highlighting the city’s Human Affairs and Racial Conciliation Commission, formed last year as an effort by city officials to confront racism in Charleston’s history and present.

“We are a vibrant city, but we are striving to advance the principles of equality and opportunity while at the same time advancing the quality of life of our citizens and growing our economy,” Tecklenburg said.

Business professionals spoke about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in the workforce.

The breakfast’s keynote speaker was Lou Kennedy, CEO and owner of Nephron Pharmaceuticals Corp. The company dubs itself as a national leader in manufacturing opioid-free drugs for pain, producing 1 billion doses of life-saving medication.

Kennedy said one her goals when relocating Nephron from Orland to West Columbia several years ago was maintaining a diverse labor force. Today, Nephron has employees hailing from 50 different countries, she said. 

“We don’t want to just talk the talk,” Kennedy said. “We do walk the walk.”

Tecklenburg said employers struggled amid the pandemic to hire employees. Given the difficulties, the mayor challenged those in the room to hire or mentor 1,000 youths in 2023. The city led a similar effort several years ago in helping to get just over 850 youths hired or mentored, and Tecklenburg hopes to exceed that number this time around.

“We want to inspire, mentor and enrich our youth in our community,” Tecklenburg said.

The event honored those who are currently blazing trails for the next generation.

Maxine Smith, former CEO of the Trident Urban League, was presented with Joseph P. Riley Jr. Vision Award, named for the city’s former mayor.

Currently, Smith is doing outreach for the state Department of Transportation’s Interstate 526 Lowcountry Corridor West project, which is projected to impact four minority neighborhoods in North Charleston.

The Rev. DeMett Jenkins, the International African American Museum’s Lilly director of education and engagement for Faith-Based Communities, will receive the Harvey Gantt Triumph Award at the Jan. 15 ecumenical service.

Charleston’s MLK celebration was founded by YWCA Greater Charleston and first held in January 1972 — one of the first such tributes to King in the nation. The annual MLK Breakfast Summit was added in January 2000 in partnership with former Mayor Joe Riley and the city of Charleston. Today, the celebration hails itself as the largest tribute to King in South Carolina, attracting thousands of celebrants each year.

Last year, amid continuing impacts of the pandemic, the YWCA filmed a parade route starting from The Citadel and traveling around Hampton Park that was then aired on television.

This year, members of the public are invited to watch marching bands, parade floats and dancing groups as more than 100 organizations participate. The Jan. 16 parade will run from Burke High School to Marion Square.

The centerpiece of the celebration is the Jan. 15 MLK Ecumenical Service, where the Rev. Dr. Herbert L. Temoney, presiding elder of the Santee District of the Seventh Episcopal AME Church Central South Carolina Annual Conference, will be the keynote speaker.