MLK celebration returns to an in-person event to honor students and unsung heroes

This year’s Great Lakes Bay Region Martin Luther King event at Saginaw Valley State University will be cause for true celebration.

For the first time since the pandemic, the Great Lakes Bay Region Martin Luther King Celebration will return to an in-person event. The celebration will be held on Wed., Jan. 18 at 7 p.m. in the Malcolm Field Theatre in Curtiss Hall at SVSU.

It also will feature keynote speaker Bakari Sellers, a best-selling author, attorney, civil rights activist, CNN analyst, and former South Carolina state legislator. And this year’s event also will feature an appearance by SVSU’s new president, George Grant Jr.

Thanks to a growing list of regional sponsors — which includes a number of companies, businesses, organizations — the event also will be free of charge, says Mamie Thorns, Associate Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

Last year’s virtual event drew nearly 500 people, but this year the in-person celebration is expected to exceed that number. The annual event has historically drawn a lot of people and some well-known keynote speakers, such as former Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice.

Reservations are required for the annual MLK Regional Celebration at SVSU on Wed., Jan. 18.The theme of this year’s celebration is “Working Together, Sharing the Dream,” Thorns says, adding the collaboration of sponsors and others putting on the event is a true example of what the theme of this year’s event is all about.

“I think Dr. King would be pleased that this Great Lakes Bay Region is working together to share the dream,” Thorns says. “I also think he would say ‘You’ve got work to do.’ But we are moving the needle.”

Park of keeping MLK’s dream alive is passing along his message to the next generation and recognizing those who embody his dream and values, she says. For that reason, a large part of the annual event is recognizing high school seniors and a handful of unsung heroes in the region who are carrying on MLK’s dream and work in area schools and communities.

This year, 15 high school seniors will receive a $1,000 scholarship to put toward a college, university, or vocational education, Thorns says. To qualify for the MLK Scholarship, the seniors need a 2.0 grade point average and have to write an essay about how they are keeping MLK’s dream alive in their schools and communities. A committee of individuals from Bay, Midland, and Saginaw counties selects the award winners.

The Rev. Phillip JohnsonCEOs of the three area community foundations — Bay Area Community Foundation, Midland Area Community Foundation, and the Saginaw Community Foundation — will present the awards during the ceremony, Thorns says.

“We have to pass the torch to our young people,” Thorns says. “We have to teach young people about civil rights.”

Diane Mahoney, President and CEO of the Bay Area Community Foundation, agrees.

“We need voices that are willing to be courageous and speak out for equality and our common humanity, compassion, love, and service,” she says.

Angelia Williams“Those are just some of the ideals that Dr. King spoke about. We need to hear those voices today and every day. Our future is in the young people. We can’t ever stop lifting up voices like Dr. King’s or the voices of the scholarship recipients.”

Most of the scholarship recipients still do not know their exact college or vocational school plans yet, so the community foundations will pay the scholarship directly to the institution of each students’ choice once they make their selections in the spring, Mahoney says.

The 2023 scholarship recipients include:
  • Sophia Steelmon from Bay City Western High School
  • Anastasia Breen from John Glenn High School
  • Layla Somerfield from Garber High School
  • Anna Grotelueschen from Bay City Central High School
  • Amelia Hatfield from H.H. Dow High School
  • Demiyah Barlow from Saginaw Arts & Sciences Academy
  • Andrew Steger from Midland High School
  • Sydney Thompson from H.H. Dow High School
  • Lionel Baldwin from Arthur Hill High School
  • Mackenzie Trainor from Freeland High School
  • Mit Foley from Heritage High School
  • Andy Yao from H.H. Dow High School
  • Jason Pringle II from Heritage High School
  • Carrington Pryor from Heritage High School
  • Emelia Ingalla from H.H. Dow High School
This year, three people from Bay, Midland, and Saginaw counties also will receive a Drum Major Award for their work in each of their communities, Thorns says. These people may not be CEOs of large companies but they are people making a big difference, doing work in the region that embodies MLK’s dream. “They’re kind of like the unsung heroes who don’t get recognized.”

Drum Major Award winners exemplify MLK’s values in the work they are doing for the community, Mahoney says. “Dr. King exhibited tremendous courage, empathy, and understanding of humans.”   

Holoman SmallwoodPeople who receive the Drum Major Award are people who are “quietly living a life of compassion, of love,” Mahoney says. “All of them are providing a credible service to the community—for the principle, not any kind of recognition.”

There is a lot of division in our society today, Mahoney says. This annual event “creates unity instead of division” and highlights people who embody MLK’s dreams and values.

The Bay Area Community Foundation is always looking for ways to build the community, and this event showcases good in each of the region’s communities “even when times are difficult,” she says.

“This event gives us a chance to celebrate where we come from,” Mahoney says, “but the message is that we still have work to do.”

The recipients of the 2023 Drum Major award are:
  • The Rev. Phillip Johnson, lead pastor of Apostolic Life Church of Bay City, a thriving, multi-ethnic, multi-generational congregation. Since 2017, Johnson has prioritized providing an exceptional level of support to the community through various ministry efforts, designed to reach the disadvantaged within our region. He helped develop weekly food programs, youth group mentorships programs, COVID-19 testing (during pandemic) and other service efforts. He also serves the Bay County Sheriff’s Office as lead Chaplain in the Bay County Jail, ministering to inmates and providing support for their families. He's also a Bay County Juvenile Detention Center Chaplain. In 2019, Johnson was selected by the Director of the Bay City Department of Public Safety to serve as Chaplain for the Public Safety Officers.
  • Smallwood Holoman Jr., a retired scientist and Director for The Dow Chemical Company in Midland and a community volunteer for the Great Lakes Bay region. Holoman has nearly 40 years of corporate experience in technical research and development as a chemist, human resources, and public affairs. Holoman was CFO and co-owner of Holoman Associates Inc. and 9Round Fitness of Royal Oak.
  • Angelia Williams, a graduate of Florida A&M University and Florida International University, has more than 40 years of clinical, community and administrative healthcare experiences as a Registered Nurse and former Adult Nurse Practitioner. Williams uses her voice to address health inequities that negatively affect health outcomes for people in our
    community who are underinsured, underserved, and marginalized. She has been employed at Great Lakes Bay Health Centers (GLBHC) for 20 years and is the Senior Vice-President. Williams secured grant funding to implement school-based health clinics at Arthur Hill and Saginaw high schools in early 2005 and recently received funding to provide mental health services at Thompson Middle and Bridgeport Spaulding Schools. She was also instrumental in implementing the first Ryan White HIV/AIDS Medical Services grant funded program in the Great Lakes Bay Region in 2006 at GLBHC. 
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.