“Forward together. Not one step back,” was the message Rev. Marvin Hightower delivered in his speech during a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration on Saturday at Grace United Methodist Church.

Hightower is the Senior Pastor of Liberty Church of Peoria and the newly elected president of the Peoria NAACP chapter. He praised those who address diversity because “it takes courage.”

He acknowledged Pekin’s past reputation of being a “sun down town” and how far the people of Pekin have come in accepting people of color. Hightower told the crowd of about 75 who had braved the cold temperatures to attend the YWCA of Pekin’s Coalition for Equality’s 25th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration that diversity needs to be a priority.

“When we elected President Obama, many thought we had reached King’s dream, that we had realized the part of the Declaration of Independence that says, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…’” said Hightower. “I stand before you to say the wound (of racism and racial injustice) has not healed.”

He said there was a scab that had covered the wound and in this current political climate it seems the wound is visible again. However, he refuses to go backward.

“We need to make diversity a priority to move forward,” Hightower said. “It’ll take you and me. There’s only one race and that’s the human race. It starts with a conversation. Get to know someone different.”

After Hightower’s speech, Marj Oesch’s second-grade class from L.E. Starke Primary School in Pekin sang songs about King and cooperating to accomplish a job. Their message was “hands are for helping, not hurting.”

Oesch said her class had been learning about King this month.

“It’s not just the academic content we want for our students,” said Oesch. “We want our students to be good citizens. It’s all year not just around this weekend.”

Second grader Madison Dare said she liked singing songs about King and learning about him in school. She said one thing she learned was that there used to be separate places for black people and that segregation was not fair.

“The message was right on the mark,” said Pekin Mayor John McCabe at the celebration. “We can’t kid ourselves that we’re past racism. We need to be more aware of it in order to take action. What we do here is a worthwhile event. This should not be just a celebration of a great American, but also a day of activity to remember to be involved year round, to be of service to our neighbors.”

In addition to the celebration that morning, it was also a “day of service.” YWCA Community Outreach Director Maureen Naughtin said the YWCA’s mission includes eliminating racism and empowering women, which “fits in perfectly” with King’s message of equality. She and the Pekin Outreach Initiative asked the community to join them in honoring King with a day of service. 

This month they are gathering personal hygiene items for junior high and high school students in Pekin. Suggested items include shampoo and conditioner, body wash, body lotion, deodorant, toothpaste and toothbrushes. Any donations may be dropped off at YWCA of Pekin, at 315 Buena Vista Ave., by Jan. 31. 

Naughtin said Hightower’s message was “spot on.” 

“It served as a reminder of where we have been, the ups and downs and where we currently are,” she said. “I think he stated it without being too political. I loved how he presented his message with call and response, which I think helped keep the children engaged, too.”

All children in the audience that morning were allowed to choose one book to take home. Books were provided with the help of an Illinois Reading Council grant and the Feeding through Reading Program at the YWCA of Pekin. There were a number of biographies about King, Coretta Scott King, Sojourner Truth, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Rosa Parks, Jesse Owens and Harriet Tubman. Other books offered included “The Watsons go to Birmingham,” “Esperanza Rising,” “The Skin I’m In,” “Hidden Figures” and “The Keeping Quilt.” 

Eager readers quickly gathered at the table to look through the selection and get one that caught their eye. Oesch said the biographies have become very popular in her class this year. 

There was also a continental breakfast prior to the program. The Pekin Community High School Culinary Arts program made scones, Dunkin Donuts provided donuts and Walmart also contributed.