Essential workers and the college students who organized one of the largest peaceful protests in local history were among those honored Jan. 18, 2021, during the 37th annual Martin Luther King Commemorative Service and Leadership Awards Service.
To prevent the spread of COVID-19, Martin Luther King Holiday Committee changed the traditional march and program to a car parade and drive-in service at Manual Academy’s parking lot.
The Drum Major Awards presentations and tributes, including a special street sign honoring essential workers, focused on the power of community, specifically King’s vision of the “Beloved Community.” The street sign was installed Jan. 22 at the corner of Martin Luther King Dr. and Western Ave. The sign is a public appreciation for workers confronting the challenges of a global pandemic, particularly those whose work is typically low-paid and under-appreciated. Locating the sign on King Drive is also a fitting tribute to King’s legacy and the ongoing journey towards the “Beloved Community,” a society based on peace and justice where all people have access to the basic human dignity of public safety, a living wage and quality education, healthcare and housing.
The Martin Luther King Holiday Committee also announced a special award in memory of the late Rev. C.T. Vivian, a former Peorian who grew up in Macomb. He was part of King’s inner circle during key campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement.
Vivian participated in his first non-violent sit-ins in the late 1940s, helping to desegregate Peoria restaurants. He died in 2019 at the age of 95 on the same day as Congressman John Lewis, his colleague during the Nashville movement and Freedom Rides of the 1960s. Vivian was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2013. The new award will be presented in future years.
Drum Major Award winners and other tributes:
*Young Revolution, Drum Major Award for Social Justice: The group grew out of the initial work of Autumn Cain, Mariah Cooley, and Sincere Williams, key organizers behind Peoria’s peaceful demonstrations protesting the death of George Floyd and police brutality. A multi-racial group of more than 1,000 people calling for racial justice thronged downtown streets, part of protests worldwide that continue to lead to police reforms and broad cultural changes. All recent Richwoods High School graduates, the three continue to work on social justice issues in college. Cooley, for instance, is co-founder and legislative director of Howard University’s March for Our Lives chapter. Williams works with the Illinois Prisoner Rights Coalition.
*Pam Wiley, Drum Major Award for Community Service: Wiley overcame depression and health problems to start a food pantry at Peoria Public Schools Wrap-Around Center. The pantry serves about 200 families, or about 1,000 people, a week. Wiley, a volunteer, used her own money to help launch the pantry. PPS officials say the pantry became the unexpected anchor that allows the wrap-around center to wrap social services around the families they serve.
*In a special recognition of the growing number of residents raising money for funerals of loved ones, the King committee highlighted the community outpouring to help raise money for the funerals of four young women who died in a tragic car accident in September 2020, with special emphasis on the work of Tammy Alexander, who volunteered at several fundraisers, and Sonia Herron, who organized a soul food fundraiser at Jr.’s Chicken, with support of many others, including her brother, Elbert Nickerson Jr., owner of the restaurant. But Manual Academy, along with the families of the four young women, friends and strangers, also raised funds in a variety of ways, from selling food, jewelry, or t-shirts to making donations. Widespread efforts made it difficult to single out the fundraising of one person or group. As Alexander said, it’s important to let the families know they have community support. Her sentiments are at the heart of the Beloved Community.
The King Holiday Committee extends special thanks to new co-sponsors WMBD-TV, WPNV Radio, and Peoria Public Schools, whose technical support made the 2021 commemoration possible, along with co-sponsors Illinois Central College, Bradley University, Afro-American Firefighters Association of Peoria, and Silver Star Chapter Order of the Eastern Star. The City of Peoria Public Works Department installed the honorary street sign, which was approved by First District City Councilwoman Denise Moore.