Annual MLK Day Community Celebration returns for first time since pandemic

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Members of our community celebrated the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Monday inside the Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre.

The message was about getting beyond the walls of any church, theater, or building and continuing the push for political, economic, and social equity.

It was the first time since the pandemic for the annual MLK Day Community Celebration.

Inside the hall, there was a joyful chorus, and a theater full of people pushing for change – and those in charge of making it.

The keynote speaker, Suzan Johnson Cook, was the first woman and African-American to hold the position of U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom. Her mission is to ensure she takes others with her, she said.

“It’s really not just to open doors but to pull people through and help them to sit at the tables I’ve been at: diplomatic tables. I literally was with the pope – Benedict – who just died, so as a Black Baptist woman, I wouldn’t have been able to go into the room with him, but as a United States ambassador, I was called into the room with him.”

Cook is also the goddaughter of the late Coretta Scott King.

“Our parents became close and then Mrs. King, when my mother died, said, ‘You’re my other daughter’ so I was officially her goddaughter. I officiated her funeral with those multiple thousands of people, but she was very, very close to me and I was very close to her.”

And she has always, she says, tried to carry on the legacy of the King family: striving for political, economic, and social equity.

Cook tells the story of a time she was introducing the president of the United States during a North Carolina campaign event on a field where her mother once picked cotton.

“Took a few minutes to compose myself actually and to really think about what that really meant – the significance of how far my parents came,” she said.

Now, she uses it to inspire others.

“My mother said, ‘I used an outhouse, but my daughter walks in the White House,'” Cook told the crowd. “Dream on, and dream with your great heart. In Jesus’ name, say, ‘Yeah!'”