STARKVILLE, Miss.--Calling it "one of the most important holidays in American history," Mississippi State's 2014 Rhodes Scholar said Monday's annual national celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday is "a testament to the progress America has made" in race relations.
University senior Donald M. "Field" Brown of Vicksburg was keynote speaker for the annual MLK Unity Breakfast held each year on campus. He is among 32 Americans nationwide selected this year to receive the prestigious international fellowship.
While citing as proof of progress the martyred civil rights leader's continuing influence in expanding racial equality, the English and philosophy double-major also was quick to acknowledge that the United States "still has a long way to go."
In addition to Brown's remarks, MSU President Mark E. Keenum spoke to the importance of recognizing King's contributions.
"This event is a tribute to the spirit of this community as we celebrate our continual march together for the dream that Dr. King had," Keenum said. "I'm pleased with the diversity found today on this campus and pleased that MSU enrolls students from a variety of backgrounds."
Mississippi State is the most diverse university in the Southeastern Conference and the most diverse original land-grant university in the nation.
An audience of more than 400 attended the free event in the Colvard Student Union's Bill Foster Ballroom. Held for 20 years, the breakfast is jointly sponsored by the City of Starkville and the university.
During his presentation, the 22-year-old Brown contrasted the middle class, interracial upbringing from which he benefited with that of his father, who had to spend a large part of his life segregated in school and society. While thus far enjoying a life of "interracial fraternity" and "fulfillment of the American Dream," Brown agreed with King's observation that "signs of victory have already occurred, but are not yet completed."
Brown expressed gratitude to Mississippi State, in general, and his professors, in particular, for helping him achieve such a high point of academic scholarship and leadership. He applauded the 136-year-old land-grant institution for being a forerunner of racial progress in the South.
"My professors have helped me think about the importance of race in American literature, understand the importance of my faith in relation to how I view politics and literary theory, and talk about ideas and life more generally," he said.
The 1963 "Game of Change," 1965 peaceful enrollment of its first African-American student and 2004 hiring of the Southeastern Conference's first African-American football coach were cited by Brown as MSU equality milestones he said "Dr. King would be proud to see."
"This university, as a whole, has wrapped its arms around me to help me, and I will be forever grateful for that," he said.
He also thanked his parents, Willie and Cynthia Brown, for helping to open his eyes to a changing world.
"For all the progress made, however, we can do better," he said. "We've got to truly look to King and his message so that the security of justice and the riches of freedom become an actual reality, and not just a promise we're still waiting for."
Following May graduation, Brown begins pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Oxford, one of the world's leading institutions of higher learning.
During the program, two local students were honored as winners in the 2014 MLK Writing Contest sponsored by MSU's Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion.
Justin Brooks, a senior at Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science in Columbus, took first-place honors, while the second place winner was Yolanda Kelly, a senior at Starkville High School. Both received monetary awards for their essays on the civil rights leader's legacy.
The MSU Black Voices Choir provided music for the early morning event.
For more about MSU, visit www.msstate.edu.