SALT LAKE CITY — For Freddie Belle Phillips Cooper, participating Wednesday in a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech Wednesday was a reminder to Utahns that "we are all family."
Cooper joined other members of the state's Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission, Gov. Gary Herbert, Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, and the Rev. France Davis, pastor at Calvary Baptist Church, to ring handbells marking the moment King delivered his historic speech during the 1963 march on Washington.
Their efforts were echoed at bell towers across the state, nation and even the world. The Utah Capitol carillon bells rang out "We Shall Overcome," the civil rights anthem performed at the ceremony by the Calvary Baptist Choir.
Cooper, a retired educator who moved to Utah in the early 1980s, recalled growing up in her native South Carolina "during the days when people didn't respect who we were, and what we needed to do in order to achieve."
She protested a way of life that required her to step off a sidewalk if a white person was approaching, to attend segregated schools and stay out of public buildings, including libraries.
"It was repressive," Cooper said. "We were restricted."
She took strength from hearing King speak, once in person standing in a South Carolina field. Cooper traveled to Atlanta with the hope of hearing King preach at his church, but he had been jailed after a protest.
While much has changed since then, Cooper said there is more to do.
"We still have issues in Utah. People don't think we do," Cooper said.
She described an incident at a store on Tuesday, when a clerk came up to a counter and overlooked her to ask the white woman standing behind her who was first in line.
Cooper stayed silent but was stung, even though she said the clerk probably thought she'd done nothing that could be seen as racist. "You feel it," she said, wondering if the clerk assumed she didn't belong at the front of the line.
"People still don't realize that their actions or their words can put some people on the offensive in order to defend themselves against something they see as unjust," Cooper said.
Instead, she said people should be making an effort to make others feel "comfortable and accepted" and, as King said, judged on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
"We are all family," Cooper said. "We really are all family."
The Rev. Davis also said there are lessons for Utahns to take away from Wednesday's ceremony.
"The first thing Utahns need to do is to stop counting numbers and deciding to make decisions based on majority versus minority, and to treat everybody as if they are an important part of the community," he said.
Utah's population is growing ever more diverse, the Rev. Davis said. "Diversity is here. It's not going away and it's going to become more and more. And either we learn how to live together or we'll perish apart."
At the ceremony, the Rev. Davis described witnessing the King speech as a 16-year-old traveling through Washington, D.C., from a summer job in New Jersey. When King spoke, he said, "it was like turning electrical current in a dark room."
The governor said King's speech 50 years ago "changed our attitudes, showed us a pathway forward, inspired us and motivated us" in the United States and around the world.
"The dream of equality is something that we still foster, we still search for, because we know in every corner it is not there," Herbert said. "We know we still have work to do."
The governor declared Wednesday, "The Day to 'Let Freedom Ring' from the State Capitol of Utah" and signed an executive order reauthorizing the state's Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission.
The executive order states that the commission, whose members include Deseret News reporter Jasen Lee, will encourage activities marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the third Monday in January as well as seek "to involve all sectors, private and public, in a conscious effort to promote diversity, equity and human rights."
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