“What called you to service?” moderator Professor Robert Wichlinski asked a trio of public servants at the start of Valpo’s 2023 MLK Day Celebration. During the “Human Rights, The Ideal vs. Reality” focus session, featured panelists Valparaiso City Councilman Robert Cotton, Congressman Frank Mrvan and Portage Township Trustee Brendan Clancy spoke about their experiences.
Cotton began with his memories of the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) and Robert F. Kennedy. He recalled the resultant national trauma and how MLK’s death led him to pursue political change.
“In 1968, we began to consider a move to a place called Valparaiso. It was already at the advent of Martin Luther King [Jr.'s] assassination that I said that he did not die in vain,” Cotton said. “If my life means anything, it will be to work hard to perpetuate the values and things he strove for. He can’t have died in vain. His dream can’t be crushed by that assassination.”
In the late 1960’s, Cotton and his family moved to Valpo, becoming the first Black family in the city.
“There were a lot of political circumstances where we were not necessarily welcomed,” Cotton said. “[I wanted to be] the guy to pick up the baton and move a community like Valparaiso to realize what [MLK] said when he said that all men—black, white—[should be] living and singing the words of the Negro spiritual ‘Free at Last.’”
Mrvan praised Cotton’s legacy before giving his own account of being called to serve in politics.
“[Cotton] broke ceilings to be here. When people didn’t think it was possible for an African-American to be a member of the city council of Valparaiso, he didn’t allow people to tell him no. He made sure they heard his voice and [he] spoke up for what he believed in,” Mrvan said. “My purpose came from understanding that my skill set that I had honed in on in college—to be able to be a strong communicator—and then when I became a township trustee to understand the value of giving a voice to the voiceless. What that did for my community, for my region and for myself … gave me value.”
Clancy described his duties as a township trustee and encouraged attendees to go above and beyond in helping others.
“Don’t let the definition of your job restrain you from doing what you want or need to do,” Clancy said. “My calling was helping people. I do love to be a voice. I think that’s my biggest asset—I also think it’s my biggest reward.”
This year’s focus sessions kicked off the 2023 MLK Day Celebration theme of “Celebrating the Value of Humanity.” Other sessions included “Economic Sustainability and Distributive Justice” presented by Cheryl Harris, Senior Vice President and Chief Procurement Officer of Allstate Insurance Company; “Affirmative Action” led by Penn State Assistant Professor of Higher Education Lawanda Ward; “Identity Equitable Healthcare” presented by Nicholas Metheny, Assistant Professor of University of Miami; “Environmental Justice” led by Gloria Dei Lutheran Church’s Reverend Gregory Manning and “The Gift of Immigration” led by Rothschird Dangervil, a Master of Divinity student at Andrews University.
The celebration featured several new events this year, including a Celebrating Black Artists exhibition at The Brauer Museum of Art. Additionally, students and community members participated in a Reenactment of the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, marching with signs from the Christopher Center Library to the Chapel of the Resurrection.
The day concluded with a convocation in the Chapel of the Resurrection featuring Guest Speaker Indiana State Senator Eddie Melton. A Gary, Ind. native, Melton has served as Indiana’s 3rd District State Senator since his election in 2016.
“There’s nothing more powerful than when a person has wisdom, knowledge and understanding of their individual purpose,” Melton said. “So to the students that are here today … I encourage you to live your life in your purpose and on purpose.”
Throughout his speech, Melton focused on encouraging students and others in the community to continue MLK’s work.
“Dr. King embodies social justice, humanitarianism. Dr. King demonstrated to us that each of us is equipped to change the world starting with ourselves, within our own individual humanity,” Melton said. “Dr. King left it to us to not only continue his legacy of change but also to inspire others to see themselves as change agents.”
Melton closed his speech on Jan. 16, 2023 by incorporating the importance of maintaining one’s faith while addressing racial, political and economic injustice.
“Romans 8:31 says, ‘What, then, shall we say to these things? If God is before us, who can be against us?’ I hope we all leave here today feeling more driven to operate in that purpose,” Melton said. “We’re in a new year, and I challenge you to lead like never before. I challenge you to serve like never before. Like Dr. King, I challenge you to love your fellow mankind like never before. Remember, a leader is merely a servant who has the humility to serve others.”