More than 1,300 people were at the Show Me Center Tuesday night for the 2013 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Dinner and to hear Grammy Award-winning recording artist John Legend deliver its keynote address.
Legend directed much attention to young people in the audience, particularly college students.
"I believe you're going to have a great college experience," he said. "But consider this education you're receiving a gift. It's an expensive and difficult gift, but a college education will give you the tools to succeed in life."
Without education, Legend said, doors are closed and opportunities do not rise. The poor will remain poor, and they can expect to stay trapped in crumbling schools, which he referred to as "drop-out factories."
"To put it bluntly," he said, "our education system is broken. As it stands, a good education in the United States remains a gift for some, but it should be a right for all. The inequality in our education system is the new civil rights battle of our time."
The nation's schools must step it up to meet the needs of those in poverty, Legend said. He encouraged students to be part of the solution.
"You're equipped to succeed," he said. "I urge you to use your power for good. Apply a fraction of that power toward making a difference."
Legend recalled upon becoming successful as a singer, he was inspired to make a difference when he traveled to Africa and saw first-hand the destitute conditions in which people were living. It led him to create the not-for-profit "Show Me Campaign." "I named the campaign after a song I wrote, 'Show Me,' " he said. "It's a song that asks simple, honest questions about life, like why there is so much suffering in the world. The campaign isn't about just talking about poverty; it's about doing something about it."
The mission is to break the cycle of poverty by using solutions shown to improve people's lives and to give them opportunities to survive, thrive and succeed. The campaign partners with Teach For America to end educational inequality by placing top college graduates to teach in the low-income schools.
"You college students can join us to help realize Dr. King's dream of equality for all," he said. "Kids can achieve great things when they go to excellent schools, and I believe you Southeast students can help make all schools excellent if you want to."
Legend reminded students that following a passion to serve others may not be easy.
"Dr. King put his life on the line," he said, "but I'm not asking you to do that. You may have to step on some toes or ruffle some feathers, but that's how change happens, even if you're doing something that not everyone can understand."
He said he hoped students would use their time wisely.
"Remember it's a privilege for you to be here. I hope you all go out on a mission of good when you graduate," he said.
He then moved to a nearby piano and sang four songs: "Save Room", "Ready To Go Right Now", "Tonight", and "Ordinary People."
The Southeast Missourian was a sponsor of the event.
This was the fourth installment of the 2012-2013 University Speakers Series. Other series events are talks by Michelle Kwan on March 6 and Jeff Corwin on April 10.
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